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FCC Might be Making It Easier to Scam Older Clients

By Thomas Coyle June 27, 2017

Experts on elder financial abuse want wealth managers to know about a little-watched federal regulation under consideration that could make it easier for telephone fraudsters to frighten and swindle unsuspecting consumers.

The Federal Communications Commission might update telemarketing regulations to let companies — principally sales outfits and bill collectors — drop messages into your voice mailbox without first ringing your phone.

Meanwhile, in the absence of an FCC decision – for which there is no timeline – marketers are already dropping no-ring messages directly in people’s voicemail without restriction.

While such no-ring messages might sound benign to some, “the telephone can be a dangerous weapon – especially with vulnerable seniors,” says Elizabeth Loewy, who spent thirty years as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and founded its Elder Abuse Unit. And “ringless” calls could help bad actors “draw seniors in and start the real pitch in a call that’s in-person.”

Although it isn’t just seniors who are at risk, Loewy says they can be especially trusting, and sometimes lonely enough to fall prey to unscrupulous marketers. Add cognitive impairment to the mix — around 20% of Americans over age 65 have it in some form, says the American Psychiatric Association — and ringless calls “become a matter of great concern,” she adds.

The FCC’s public-comment period on the measure closed early this month. A thumbnail survey of this input suggests the public is overwhelmingly opposed to the measure. Views like this one are typical: “I am incredulous that ‘ringless’ voicemails are being proposed,” Bruce Campbell of Lincoln, Mass., comments to the FCC. “They should be illegal.”

Most voices against the measure say it makes spamming — aggressive unsolicited commercial pitches — by telephone more widespread and insidious.

Finding comments in favor of allowing ringless calls takes some doing. One, from Dave Garretson of Springfield, Mo., says, “I do not see ringless voicemail as intrusive at all. It does not ring my phone and is done with server-to-server technology.” And he asserts many complaints about ringless calls are based on media distortion of the issue.

Garretson runs a company “devoted to helping local businesses manage their digital advertising presence.”

In common with the Republican National Committee — which is probably the highest profile backer of ringless calls — Garretson sees these calls as outside the FCC’s telemarketing purview because “they are not ‘calls’ at all, but more similar to an e-mail that is dropped from one server to another,” according to his FCC comment.

In its submission, the RNC says “direct-to-voicemail is a true ‘win-win’ for callers and their intended recipients” because “callers can use direct-to-voicemail messages to engage in normal, expected and desired communications” and recipients “can choose whether and when to retrieve and listen to the message, allowing them to consider the message without the intrusion of an unsolicited phone call.”

But elder advocates are unimpressed with this reasoning.


Loewy is especially worried about scammers leaving no-ring messages about bogus speeding tickets and non-existent lottery winnings as the basis for direct rip-offs — paying off the fictional “ticket”; paying a “tax” on a nonexistent offshore sweepstakes windfall; and “phishing” expeditions to get personal information as the basis for ongoing larceny.

Loewy, now general counsel and industry relations chief at identity-theft and fraud-alert service EverSafe, believes FAs share with family members and other trusted advisors a duty to warn elderly clients against the specific threat of ringless calls. Loewy says the talk is best done in person with family members, as appropriate. But she warns against making it a one-off lecture. “Make it part of an ongoing conversation,” she says.

And on a practical note, Loewy suggests helping senior clients get on do-not-call lists and downloading auto-call blockers like Nomorobo.

Jennifer Eastman, an elder-law attorney with Rudman Winchell in Bangor, Maine, agrees ringless messages “really open some clients to scams.”

Besides the standard gambits — fake lotteries, impostor relatives — Eastman fears crooks are using no-ring messages to establish a false sense of familiarity with at-risk elderly clients.

“These can be incredibly elaborate scams that depend on establishing an ongoing relationship with the victim,” says Eastman. “Ringless calls can facilitate that, especially when you’re dealing with victims who can’t remember how the relationship originally came to be.”