Washington — More than 400 people have been charged with defrauding seniors out of more than $1 billion over the past year, the Justice Department revealed Tuesday. Attorney General William Barr announced the charges in Tampa on Tuesday at the Sun City Center Community Hall for seniors.
Barr explained why this issue has personal meaning for him. "I myself was used as a lure in a scam," the attorney general told retirees. Before he became the nation's 85th attorney general, the 1991 official photograph of Barr from his first stint in in the job in George H.W. Bush's administration was used by scammers offering phony federal grants in exchange for money. "It was really heart-wrenching. People called in desperate hope that this was real," Barr explained. "That crystalized the issue for me, and when I got to the department I wanted to make sure that this was one of our highest priorities to go after this."
"With the advent of the internet and other technology, the elderly have become especially vulnerable," he said. "What makes these crimes particularly heinous is not just the vulnerability of the victims, it's not just that it involves an abuse of trust, but rather that due to the victims stage of life — it is frequently impossible for them to recover the financial loss. And this means a devastating impact on the victims. These victims should be in their golden years, having worked very hard to save up for retirement and frequently, their life savings are just taken from them by these coldblooded fraudsters."
Barr also took the opportunity to highlight the work of the Justice Department exposing egregious conduct and malpractice on the part of some nursing homes, announcing investigations across nine states into facilities that have failed to provide adequate care to their patients. Barr described some of the evidence he was shown as "nauseating" — patients being eaten by scabies and moldy facilities infested by insects and rodents. While Barr pledged that the department was committed to investigating these wrongs, he called on victims and others to report any signs of mistreatment or neglect, as well as insufficient hygiene in facilities.
Barr has made elder fraud one of his top priorities as attorney general, and Tuesday's announcement nearly doubles last year's prosecutions. Every U.S. attorney's office across the country participated in either prosecuting or conducting proactive community outreach as part of the department's sweep.
Scams targeting the elderly are usually foreign-based, like the "Nigerian prince" scheme or robocalls involving the impersonation of a U.S. government official who demands money from targets.
"The charges announced today demonstrate the great success of the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force to identify and stop those who are targeting our senior communities from overseas," said FBI Director Christopher Wray in a statement. "We're committed to continuing our efforts to keep our elderly citizens safe, whether they're being targeted door-to-door, over the phone, or online."
In addition to these charges, the Justice Department has 30 ongoing investigations across nine states into some of the most nursing homes where some of the most egregious cases in the country occur. This probe is part of a greater elder fraud initiative announced by Barr on Tuesday.
The National Nursing Home Initiative aims to root out fraud targeting the elderly at some of the most problematic nursing facilities across the country, investigating those that are not providing basic hygienic and infectious control to residents, that have inadequate staffing, are unable to feed residents properly, or those who physically or chemically restrain or sedate their residents.
As part of that effort, the department has created a National Elder Fraud hotline, to provide personal assistance to seniors at risk of financial fraud. When warranted, those case managers will submit a form to the FBI on the caller's behalf. The nationwide number is 1-833-FRAUD-11 (1-833-372-8311).
"The HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) continues to pursue nursing home operators who provide potentially harmful care to residents who are often unable to protect themselves," chief counsel to the Health and Human Services Inspector General Gregory said in a statement. "Creating this Initiative sends a message to those in charge of caring for these beneficiaries that grossly substandard care will not be tolerated."
The national Elder fraud hotline is 1-833-FRAUD-11 or 1-833-372-8311. If you suspect that you or someone you know has been defrauded, please call this number.