ST. PAUL, Minn. - State lawmakers are taking aim at con artists from other states and countries who prey on older Minnesotans, tricking them into wiring money to strangers.
"These scams continue to be a growing problem and we need to do all we can to combat them," Rep. Joe Atkins, the Democrat who heads the House Commerce Committee, told reporters.
He said Minnesotans and Midwesterners are more trusting in general, which is one of the reasons they're often targeted by the scam operations.
The perpetrators run sophisticated scams and place calls to older persons with good credit and padded savings accounts. Once people are victimized they're often too embarrassed to report the crime, so the actual scope of the problem is larger than most would think.
Among the most common tricks is a call to an aging grandparent, telling them a grandchild will be jailed unless money is wired to the caller, typically posing as a court officer or a bondsman.
"Taking advantage of our seniors' love of their grandchildren is something we cannot tolerate," Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka remarked.
If the bill, which is a top priority of the AARP of Minnesota, became law it would require wire transfer companies to confirm the location of where the money is being sent to verify that it's going where the sender expects it to go.
The measure would also require those companies to confirm the money was sent and to identify who picked up the cash on the other end of the transaction.
It would also toughen penalties for those who are caught defrauding Minnesotans in this manner.
The bill also allows families to place older Minnesotans on a "Do Not Send" list that the Minnesota Department of Commerce would keep, letting money transfer companies know a particular person doesn't normally wire money and shouldn't be allowed to do so.
Atkins said he started working on the legislation last year after being contacted by Peggy Heistand-Harri of Duluth.
Heistand-Harri's 83-year-old mother was bilked out of $47,000 in 2010 by a group that called her from Jamaica, saying she had won a $2.5 million cash and a new Mercedes Benz vehicle.
"The caller gained her trust and coached her about exactly where to go to obtain cash advances on her zero balance credit cards," Heistand-Harri explained.
"They walked her through exactly how to wire money. She had never wired money before in her life."
Heistand-Harri didn't identify her mother at the State Capitol press conference, but described her as a single person living on Social Security and a modest pension. She had perfect credit and a $40,000 limit on her credit cards.
In a matter of days the con artists had even coaxed their victim into going to a Duluth bank and taking out a $10,000 cash advance against one of her credit cards.
She then drove across Duluth to wire it to the scam artists at a store they had instructed her to use. She'd been tricked into believing it would cover shipping costs on the new Mercedes.
At no point did any entity -- the bank who gave her the cash advance or the wire transfer company -- take note of the red flags the situation should've raised.
"When I asked her what it felt like to hold $10,000 in cash and put it in an envelope to mail it, she said, 'I don't remember. They had my mind. I didn't know what I was doing anymore.'"
Heistand-Harri said her mother was so ashamed about being taken that she withdrew socially and suffered from failing health. She also had to file for bankruptcy.
"These scammers not only took money from my mother, but her health and her spirit as well."
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