March 8, 2024

Safeguarding Our Community From Fraud

In the ongoing battle against financial fraud, particularly scammers targeting older Pennsylvanians, the Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee convened a crucial hearing on March 2, 2024 to bring information and resources to both the legislature and the public. Hosted by Representative Joe Hogan in Bucks County, the hearing aimed to address the growing risk of fraudulent activities and explore strategies to protect our most vulnerable citizens. The insights shared by a diverse panel of experts shed light on the severity of the issue and underscored the importance of collaborative efforts to combat fraud effectively.

The testifiers that joined the Policy Committee were as follows:

County Safeguards Panel:

Hon. Fred Harran - Sheriff, Bucks County

Hon. Jennifer Schorn - District Attorney, Bucks County

Hon. Daniel J. McPhillips - Recorder of Deeds, Bucks County

Questions for County Safeguards Panel

Consumer Safeguards Panel:

Nicolette Brown - Director of Customer Care, PECO Energy

Jeane M. Vidoni - President and CEO, Penn Community Bank

Rick Cimakasky - Director of Fraud and Security Management, Penn Community Bank

Questions for the Corporate Safeguards Panel

Agenda, Bios, & Testimony

County Safeguards Panel
The County Safeguards Panel began with the Honorable Fred Harran, Sheriff of Bucks County, who emphasized the imperative role of law enforcement in tackling scams and fraud. Sheriff Harran highlighted the emergence of sophisticated tactics used by scammers, including impersonating authorities like the Bucks County Sheriff's Department. In recent months scammers have “spoofed” the Sheriff Department and used the real Department’s phone number to manipulate residents into paying false fees for nonexistent crimes. He stressed the necessity for community members to report such incidents promptly, underlining that no legitimate entity, especially local law enforcement, would demand payment via cryptocurrency or gift cards.

Sheriff Harran proposed some suggestions for both the legislature and the public to combat fraud. First, he urged for the establishment of a multi-municipality fraud task force to bolster assistance for smaller communities, drawing parallels to statewide drug task forces. Secondly, for residents there is a growing risk of check “washing” that can be easily avoided by being cautious of leaving physical checks in unsecured locations. With an informed populous and a dedicated law enforcement team the scourge of fraud and scams can be addressed.

“There needs to be severe consequences for the individuals committing these scam crimes of deception and fraud.”

Hon. Fred Harran
Sheriff, Bucks County

Further insights were provided by Honorable Jennifer Schorn, District Attorney of Bucks County, who advocated for a comprehensive approach to addressing financial fraud. She emphasized the need for punitive measures alongside rehabilitation efforts, especially for crimes targeting the elderly or vulnerable populations. People and entities preying on Pennsylvanians should face strong legal deterrents, and one such deterrent would be the institution of mandatory minimum sentencing for these incredibly detrimental criminal acts. Immense law enforcement and legal resources are utilized to bring a scammer to justice, and cooperative efforts to bring together resources from across the state would expedite investigations and prosecutions.

District Attorney Schorn outlined common red flags indicative of fraudulent schemes, urging citizens to remain vigilant against high-pressure tactics employed by scammers. These high-pressure red flags are commonly:

  o   A false warrant for the victim’s arrest.
  o   A loved one is in trouble or injured.
  o   Threats of turning off utilities or losing a home

Before succumbing to these threats it is best practice to confirm their authenticity by calling the police, utility, or family directly before making rash decisions.

“These people, scammers, are predators in sheep’s clothing preying upon our most vulnerable.”

Hon. Jennifer Schorn
District Attorney, Bucks County

The discussion extended to practical measures for safeguarding property and financial assets, as presented by Honorable Daniel J. McPhillips, Recorder of Deeds for Bucks County. Mr. McPhillips introduced the Free Fraud Alert program, a proactive initiative to notify individuals of any recorded documents associated with their name or tax parcel number. If changes are made at any time the homeowner is notified. This service is not unique to Bucks County and can be requested of most other counties in the state. Even if a homeowner thinks this service is unnecessary it should be utilized as it is entirely free, and no private company can truly “lock” a title in Pennsylvania. Furthermore, he stressed that properties most at-risk for deed fraud are often unlit, have mail piling up, and are not visited regularly. To best protect a property from deed fraud ensure that it appears lived-in and well maintained.

“Unfortunately, deed fraud does happen, but it doesn’t have to happen to you.”

Hon. Daniel J. McPhillips
Recorder of Deeds, Bucks County

Consumer Safeguards Panel
Transitioning to consumer safeguards, Nicolette Brown, Director of Customer Care at PECO Energy, emphasized the critical role of informed customers in combatting utility fraud. Mrs. Brown highlighted fraudulent activities targeting utility customers and underscored PECO's commitment to safeguarding consumers against such threats. Scammers donning PECO vests have gone door to door pretending to represent the utility and requesting payments from residents. This scam is difficult to notice, but if there is ever any doubt a customer should verify the employee with PECO directly by calling 800-494-4000. Regardless of whatever the scammer may say, PECO will NEVER ask for cash, gift cards, or other uncommon forms of payment. PECO’s best tool to combat fraud is an informed customer base.

“Protecting customers from fraud is a serious undertaking for all of us at PECO.”

Nicolette Brown
Director of Consumer Care, PECO Energy

Representing the banking sector, Jeane M. Vidoni, President and CEO of Penn Community Bank, along with Rick Cimakasky, Director of Fraud and Security Management, shed light on the alarming prevalence of financial fraud cases, particularly among seniors. Though difficult to quantify, it is believed that only 1 in 44 fraud cases are officially reported, leading to an underestimate of true harms fraud incurs on Pennsylvanians. 1 in 5 older Americans are believed to have been victimized by financial fraudsters. Mrs. Vidoni noted that Penn Community Bank does everything they can possibly do to assist in the retrieval of stolen funds, but often once the funds are in the hands of the scammer there is no means to get them back. Penn Community Bank, and nearly all other banks, train their staff on how to notice financial exploitation and fraud but must have the approval of the customer to take action. Too often, a customer being defrauded becomes too invested in the scheme or too proud to admit to being swindled and fights the bank’s efforts to protect them from a scam.

Rick Cimakasky, with his background in security managements, shared common scams he’s witnessed in recent years.
  o   Fake Check Scams: A victim cashes a fake check, and then is used to unwittingly launder stolen funds back to the scammer.
  o   Government Imposter Scams: A “government agent” will attempt to defraud a victim through claims of a warrant, fine, or risk of arrest.
  o   Romance Scams: The fraudster pretends to be a love interest of a victim and demands money.

Mr. Cimakasky further shared his experiences speaking with scam victims directly and convincing them that the payments they are making are going towards fraud. He is troubled that some bank customers, generally older customers, are too proud or naïve to take the advice of their bank and wait for further confirmation before sending their savings to a possible scammer. With this sad reality in mind, on behalf of the PA Bankers Association, Mr. Cimakasky noted the support for Representative Hogan’s HB2064, which would enhance protections for older adults’ accounts to stop fraudulent transfers before the funds are lost forever.

“Each year, millions of older Americans suffer billions in irrecoverable losses.”

Jeane M. Vidoni
President and CEO, Penn Community Bank

“We need to both be able to report these scams and also STOP the transfer before it begins.”

Rick Cimakasky
Director of Fraud and Security Management, Penn Community Bank

The day’s hearing provided invaluable insights into the multifaceted challenges posed by financial fraud and underscored the urgent need for collaborative action. The testimony of the panelists displayed the importance of proactive measures, community engagement, and legislative initiatives to safeguard Pennsylvanians against fraudulent activities. Through concerted efforts at the legislative, law enforcement, community, and individual levels, Pennsylvania can aspire to a future where its citizens are empowered to recognize and thwart fraudulent schemes, ensuring the security and well-being of all members of the community.