U.S. Attorney Opinion Editorial
U.S. Attorney’s Office Combing Enforcement and Education to Prevent Senior Fraud
Each year, thousands of senior citizens across the Commonwealth become victims of financial fraud. These crimes often leave victims stripped of their life-savings, their retirement benefits and their pride.
To combat these persistent and debilitating crimes against senior citizens, we must take a holistic approach. At the forefront of our effort is vigorous enforcement. The investigation and prosecution of individuals who develop and implement the frauds that pillage seniors of their hard-earned savings will always be our top priority.
In recent years our United States Attorney’s Office has prosecuted a number of individuals who targeted the elderly and stole from them. Right here in Charlottesville, we prosecuted John Donnelly, a man who bilked senior investors out of more than $5 million through a classic Ponzi scheme. Many of the victims were elderly investors, targeted by Donnelly because he knew they were more trusting and less involved in the day-to-day maintenance of their money. Many of Donnelly’s investors, like so many victims in these types of crimes, lost their entire live savings.
While we must continue to prosecute the John Donnellys in our midst, we must not stop at enforcement. In addition to prosecuting investment fraud and other schemes that target elderly victims, we must provide support for education and prevention programs. We need to do all we can to warn seniors of these schemes and provide the information they need to protect themselves from becoming victims.
We are doing this prevention work across the Western District of Virginia. Our office recently partnered with the Roanoke City Police Department and the Better Business Bureau of the Roanoke Valley in the creation of a program to educate seniors about ways to protect themselves from fraud. We developed a concise message for seniors to “check before you write that check,” and we distributed flyers and magnets to local seniors groups. We specifically encouraged seniors to ask a series of questions before they write a check:
- Did I ask for this service or was it unsolicited?
- Did I ask to see some form of ID?
- Did I get a phone number to return their call?
- Do they want me to prepay?
- Did I tell someone, children, spouse, caregiver about the service?
- Did I give myself 24 hours to think about it?
We hope seniors use this simple checklist when someone knocks on their door or calls them on the phone.
While we won’t ever eliminate financial fraud, combining prevention and enforcement can make a difference. Like any other criminal justice problem, this issue demands cooperation between law enforcement and community organizations.
Timothy J. Heaphy, United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia