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Gillibrand asks Senate to vote against scams

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) along with senior advocates from Queens gathered in Rego Park last week to call on the Senate to pass legislation that would help prevent Queens residents from becoming victims of financial scams.

“Queens seniors have spent a lifetime saving and preparing for the golden years, and they deserve financial security and peace of mind,” Gillibrand said at the Rego Park Senior Center at 93-29 Queens Blvd. “But far too many are being lured into bad investments and getting scammed by criminals out of their savings and benefits. Queens seniors should have the resources they need to protect their investments against scam artists.”

One of the bills, which is sponsored by Gillibrand and a version of which the House of Representatives passed last month, would provide federal funds to states and local organizations to use for fraud education programs, as well as establish a center individuals could call for information about mail, telemarketing and Internet fraud. Additionally, it would declare a “National Senior Fraud Awareness Week” in May.

A different bill being sponsored by Gillibrand in the Senate and Weiner in the House would increase penalties for people who commit fraud against seniors. If passed, the legislation would impose an additional $50,000 civil fine for each violation that is targeted or committed against a senior.

Gillibrand, Weiner and advocates from the borough said senior fraud is a growing problem in Queens and around the country. A recent study by Gillibrand estimated that more than 60,000 borough seniors fall victim to scams and lose more than $21 million each year.

“While it’s appalling to think that anyone would prey on seniors, sadly older New Yorkers do face an increased threat of fraud,” Weiner said. “This legislation will go a long way towards putting a stop to these scammers’ shameful practices.”

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that one out of five seniors nationally has been the victim of fraud.

Mara Schechter, of the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, a citywide group, said it served more than 300 seniors who were victims of fraud last year.

“Anytime anybody promises you something that seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true,” Schechter warned seniors. “Scammers know older adults don’t like to be rude, but protect yourself by hanging up.”

Officials said often individuals will call seniors and say they are from various government agencies and need the older residents’ personal information, such as Social Security numbers and bank information.

Corona resident Maria Esther Romero said she fell victim to one of these scams in 2009.

“The caller said he was from Social Security, so I gave him my information,” said Romero. “Then I got a letter from New York saying I owed $90,000 in taxes. It turns out they opened a business in my name in Corona.”

Luckily, Romero went to a senior center in Corona, where she was able to get legal help and did not have to pay the $90,000.

Irina Sarkisova, director of the Rego Park Senior Center, which is part of the Queens Community House, a Forest Hills-based nonprofit that offers a variety of services from youth programs to senior centers, said they have a number of programs and hold workshops with their members about fraud, but would welcome additional funding for more education efforts.

“Identity theft especially is a growing problem,” said Sarkisova.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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