Thank you, President Romasco, for those kind words – and for inviting me to be part of this important event. I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to join you today – and I want you to know that I’m delighted to be here. Last night, I had the chance to spend some time with my oldest daughter, who just started her freshman year of college here in New Orleans. It was wonderful to see her. However, after taking in the college scene – and trying to relate to it – I must admit that it’s good to be among my peers.
So, I want to thank you all for welcoming me this morning. And I’d especially like to thank the AARP – and its outstanding leadership team and conference organizers – for bringing us together and creating a forum for this critical discussion.
After more than five decades of activism and advocacy, AARP is now 37 million members strong – and I’m proud to be counted among them. I’m also proud to be part of an organization that is working tirelessly to help empower people over the age of 50; that is helping to raise awareness about issues of challenge and consequence – issues that affect our safety, health, and financial security; and – above all – that is actively encouraging America’s seniors “to serve, not to be served.”
All across the country, AARP is leading efforts to instill this selfless spirit, to promote independence, and to inspire Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life to give back. Through initiatives like your “Create the Good” Campaign – and a host of programs and activities sponsored by the AARP Foundation – you’ve been instrumental in improving the quality of life for countless citizens as they enter their golden years. That’s especially true of your efforts to help aging Americans protect their hard-earned savings. For example, your “ElderWatch Project” – which, I understand, recently held a record-setting call-a-thon – is providing consumers with vital information on investment scams that target the “50 plus” population. The AARP Foundation, which now has seven call centers nationwide, is offering much-needed advice on how to guard against the latest telemarketing schemes. Through Webinars and Tele-town Halls, which showcase tips for helping seniors keep their money safe from scammers, you are reaching people in their own homes and communities. And by working with the U.S. Department of Justice to sponsor a series of Fraud Fighter Forums, you’re helping educate the public on how to avoid becoming victims of common financial scams. In these – and many other ways – you’ve proven your commitment to advancing the work we’ve gathered to discuss: preventing and combating financial fraud crimes.
This is a commitment that – at every level of today’s Justice Department and in each one of our 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices – my colleagues and I share. It’s been said – and I believe it’s true – that “the defining issue of our time… [is] how to keep the basic American promise alive.” You understand what that promise is all about – a sense of peace and security, and an assurance that our financial playing field is fair, open, and transparent.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this promise is precisely what’s at stake in our fight against financial fraud. Many of you have seen firsthand how common fraud crimes can devastate individuals and families – wiping out retirement funds and life savings. You know they can erode faith in our financial markets, threaten our nation’s ongoing economic recovery, and undermine the fabric of our communities. Particularly in recent years, we’ve come to understand that these crimes are most frequently committed – not by sophisticated criminal networks targeting financial centers – but by seemingly-trustworthy individuals who are willing to prey on their own neighbors, parishioners, coworkers, and even family members.
In cities and towns across America, the scars of financial fraud crimes – whether from investment fraud or bank fraud, from consumer fraud or mortgage fraud – can be clearly seen. And, unfortunately, aging and elderly Americans are often targeted. In fact, a recent study showed that roughly one in five Americans over the age of 65 has been victimized by a financial swindle. The losses suffered by these victims each year are staggering – totaling nearly $3 billion in 2010 alone. That’s an increase of 12 percent over the amount estimated just two years earlier, in 2008. But behind these numbers are stories that shock our collective conscience and break our hearts; stories of lost savings and dreams; of bankruptcies, forced moves and foreclosures, and unexpected debt; of seniors who once hoped to retire in peace and with dignity, but are now searching for jobs and living in poverty, fear, desperation, and dependency. Each one of these stories is unacceptable. That’s why today’s Justice Department has taken significant – and in some cases historic – steps to fight back.
Protecting the American people from financial fraud crimes – and safeguarding the most vulnerable members of society – is, and will remain, a Justice Department priority. Over the last few years, we’ve been focused on working in bold, innovative, and collaborative ways – and on utilizing the power of sound science and new technologies – to combat these terrible crimes. And we’ve placed a special focus on standing with our nation’s seniors – and working with strong allies like AARP – to more effectively protect their interests, investments, and hard-earned savings.
As many of you know, one important step was taken in 2009, when the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force was established. It is the biggest and broadest coalition of law enforcement officials, investigators, and regulatory agencies ever assembled to combat fraud. I am honored to chair this group. And I can attest to its powerful impact – in helping to streamline the investigative and enforcement efforts of multiple agencies and offices; to enlist new partners from across the private sector, as well as state, local, and tribal governments; and to advance cutting-edge strategies for recovering – and most efficiently utilizing – precious taxpayer resources.
As a result of the Task Force, our approach to identifying and combating financial fraud has been smart, systematic, and effective – and our results speak for themselves. Over the last three years, we successfully executed not only the largest financial and health-care fraud takedowns on record – but also the biggest bank fraud prosecution in a generation. We’ve secured charges – and record sentences of up to 60 years – in a wide range of cases against CEOs, CFOs, corporate owners, board members, presidents, general counsels, and other executives of Wall Street firms, hedge funds, and banks engaged in fraudulent activities. And in February of this year, in cooperation with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 49 state attorneys general, and other partners – the Justice Department reached an historic $25-billion settlement with the nation’s top five mortgage servicers – the largest ever obtained. These results are a testament to the hard work of investigators, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and analysts at every level of the Justice Department, in each of our U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, and across a variety of partner agencies and organizations.
With these partners, we’ve also moved to stem the recent, troubling rise in investment fraud schemes – from Ponzi schemes, to what are known as “grandparent schemes,” “lottery schemes,” “affinity fraud,” “phantom debt,” and “strike it rich” scams – that frequently target elderly middle-class individuals. We’ve learned that these crimes can be carried out in person, on the telephone, by mail, and over the Internet; and we know that, far too often, these victims are robbed of most, if not all, of their retirement savings.
In the face of such criminal activity, our response has been – and will continue to be – aggressive. Since the beginning of last year, the Justice Department’s Criminal Division – and 85 U.S. Attorney’s Offices – have reported cases related to investor fraud. And we’ve placed a special priority on combating investor fraud at the retail level – where the total reported fraud since early 2011 now tops $20 billion. This staggering number includes individual cases involving tens of thousands of dollars – and many others involving hundreds of millions in hard-earned savings and many thousands of victims. Although the defendants in these federal prosecutions used a variety of tactics and schemes, they often took the same approach – guaranteeing high returns and, in many instances, providing falsified investment documents to victims. As a result, those victims lost retirement savings, military survivor benefits, family death settlements, and money set aside for college tuition and mortgage payments.
But I’m pleased to tell you that, since the beginning of last year, approximately 800 defendants have been charged, tried, pled or sentenced in approximately 500 federal prosecutions involving this type of investor fraud. Within just the last year, the Department has obtained a prison sentence of 50 years against an individual who preyed on more than 400 elderly victims in a $40 million Ponzi scheme; as well as a sentence of 10 years against another perpetrator who victimized over 200 seniors and retirees by advertising high returns and then losing their hard-earned money on high-risk investments. And – right here in New Orleans – we secured a sentence of 30 years against the man behind the largest Ponzi scheme in Louisiana history, who used roughly $15 million entrusted to him by more than 160 retirees to build a home for himself, buy jewelry and luxury cars, pay his friends and family, and make private investments of his own.
Now, these are just a few of many examples. And we can all be proud and encouraged by the decisive victories that have been achieved against those who would victimize their fellow citizens for personal gain. But – let me assure you – this is only the beginning.
To build on these successful efforts, earlier this year, the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force established two new Working Groups – a Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group, which brings federal and state partners together to investigate and prosecute abuses in our housing markets; and a Consumer Protection Working Group, which aims to enhance civil and criminal enforcement of consumer fraud.
Both of these groups have hit the ground running – and are helping us to address specific areas of concern in a cohesive, comprehensive way. But I also recognize that building on this record, better understanding the evolving threats we face – and effectively protecting the economic interests of America’s “50 plus” population – is not something that the Justice Department, or any of our law enforcement partners, will be able to do alone.
In the fight against financial fraud, we cannot simply prosecute our way out of this problem. That’s why the Justice Department – in conjunction with U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the nation and our Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force partners – is reaching out to enlist the support of community members like all of you. We need your help in raising awareness about investor fraud and educating the American people about strategies for protecting themselves – some of which are as simple as reminding potential investors to do their homework before handing over their retirement savings, and to heed the old adage that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” And we especially need your assistance in encouraging victims and members of the public to report suspected fraud schemes. Of all the shocking statistics I’ve come across, one of the most concerning is the fact that – according to a major AARP study – 3 out of 4 financial fraud victims over the age of 55 are unlikely to report that they’ve been victimized. That rate is significantly higher than any other age group. And we all have a role to play in reversing this trend and making sure that victims know where they can – and why they must – report schemes and suspicious activities.
Such public education efforts are a key area of focus for the Justice Department, and – specifically – for the Consumer Protection Working Group. In fact, just this past March, the Working Group convened a consumer summit that brought together federal and state law enforcement officials, regulators, and consumer advocates in order to discuss strategies, emerging schemes, and methods for advancing our education and outreach efforts – and making certain that these efforts reach America’s seniors and other high-risk groups. A similar meeting was held in June. And the Department’s Consumer Protection Branch – which is part of the Civil Division – has met at least twice with AARP experts to discuss emerging trends in consumer fraud, and to help direct and focus precious resources.
I also want to note that, t oday, in Los Angeles, the local U.S. Attorney will be hosting a Consumer Education Fair to help local residents, including veterans and the elderly, learn how to detect and avoid common scams. And, in the first two weeks of October, local U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, under the auspices of our Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, will lead a series of regional Investor Fraud Summits – in Connecticut, California, Colorado, Tennessee, Ohio, and Florida. These summits will provide a unique educational platform – by bringing together U.S. Attorneys, Justice Department prosecutors, representatives from the SEC and other federal agencies, as well as advocates from organizations like AARP and the Better Business Bureau, and – perhaps the best experts of all – investor fraud victims. Additionally, in the coming weeks, the Department will partner with the Certified Financial Planner Board and the Foundation for Public Planning – in an unprecedented event – to offer free financial consulting services to 8,000 victims – many of them seniors – of an investment fraud scheme that was indicted in Chicago.
As we continue this work, I can assure you that today’s Justice Department will never hesitate to move swiftly – and fairly – to enforce our laws and bring those who commit financial fraud crimes to justice; and to help provide Americans with the tools and information they need to protect themselves. Through new resources like the website, www.stopfraud.gov, and with a new level of engagement across government agencies, private industries, and communities, we’re making important strides. But we have more to learn – and much more to do. According to the Administration on Aging, within roughly the next decade and a half, nearly 72 million Americans will be over the age of 65. That’s nearly 20% of the entire population. With this in mind, we must – and we will – continue to be vigilant.
That’s where you – and organizations like AARP – come in. If we are going to achieve the goals we share – and provide all Americans, especially our seniors, with the support they need and deserve, then we must work together like never before – to identify and monitor fraud crimes; to stop them in their tracks by encouraging all Americans to remain vigilant; to educate seniors about the need to approach potential investments with caution; and, most importantly, to help report suspected fraud schemes to the appropriate authorities. As AARP members, each of you has an opportunity – and, I believe, a responsibility – to take advantage of the resources that this organization, in cooperation with our nation’s Justice Department, has made available to you. And we all have an obligation to help spread the word, and share knowledge and expertise, throughout our communities.
With your commitment to this work, and AARP’s continued partnership and engagement, I’m confident that – as we conclude this conference – we stand poised to build upon the momentum we’ve established, and to take our anti-fraud efforts to a new level. I am proud to count each of you as colleagues – and as partners – in this ongoing work. And I look forward to where our joint efforts must – and surely will – take us from here.