Friday, July 12, 2013

Timeshare Scams Target the Elderly

For too many elderly timeshare owners, their dream vacation getaways have turned into nightmares. As bad economic times force them to sell their timeshares, con-artists hawk promises to line up buyers when all they intend to do is take the owner's money – lots of it. Timeshare scammers also connive to trap the elderly in travel-prize schemes that turn into money holes.

Fortunately, the authorities are onto them. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced 191 law enforcement actions to crack down on timeshare-resale and travel-prize scams, including three FTC cases, 83 civil actions in 28 states, and 25 law enforcement actions in ten other countries. 
All told, these swindlers bilked their victims out of tens of millions of dollars and 184 people face criminal charges so far. The FTC's announcement comes less than a year after timeshare-resale and travel-prize scams made the Consumer Federation of America's top-ten list of consumer complaints.

"Con artists take advantage of timeshare owners who have been in tough financial straits and are desperate to sell their timeshares," according to the agency. "They persuade owners to pay fat up-front fees by saying they have someone ready to buy the property, but that’s a lie."

Even worse, after a resale scammer has disappeared with thousands of dollars with no buyer in sight, a second con artist calls claiming to represent a "resale recovery services" firm, according to Forbes. This individual makes a false promise to recover the funds lost from the first fraudulent transaction for another hefty fee. After paying the fee, the victim never hears from them again.

The pressure may be intense for a timeshare holder, who can be on the hook for on-going maintenance fees (sometimes thousands of dollars per year) when the management companies fail to honor their contracts.

Typical travel-prize scams lure victims to high-pressure sales presentations with promises of free or discounted travel. For example, Forbes reports that Festiva promised large-screen TVs or cruises to seniors who attended Festiva sales presentations.  The office of the Louisiana Attorney General, which handled scores of complaints against the company, reported that "Once there, [victims] were forced to listen to a six-hour sales pitch. Some never received their ‘prizes,’ others complained that the free cruises ended up costing hundreds of dollars in fees."

To avoid getting scammed:

  • never pay for a promise and be suspicious of up-front fees (don't pay until your unit is sold, advises the FTC)
  • always get everything in writing first
  • have any documentation reviewed by a trusted financial advisor, realtor, or attorney before signing – if a sales rep pressures you to sign or pay something immediately, don't
  • pay close attention to maintenance responsibility and rules for selling a unit
  • before agreeing to anything, check for complaints against timeshare resellers by going online, or contacting the state Attorney General and local consumer protection agency

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Google Invests $7 Mill to Stop Child Porn Access

Jacquelline Fuller, the director of Google Giving, recently announced that the company's investing $5 million to support efforts by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and international organizations to rid the web of child exploitation. Google's also ponying up $2 million to encourage more effective tool development to combat Internet child sexual abuse.

To underscore the urgency of its effort, Google reports that the NCMEC’s CyberTipline reviewed 17.3 million suspected child sexual abuse images in 2011 – quadruple the amount seen in 2007 by its Exploited Children's Division.

Fuller says the search engine has used hashing technology to tag offending child sexual images with unique computer-recognized ID's since 2008.  What's new, the announcement declared, is that Google's beginning to "incorporate encrypted 'fingerprints' of child sexual abuse images into a cross-industry database [that other tech] companies, law enforcement and charities [will share] to better collaborate on detecting and removing these images, and to take action against the criminals."
However, some critics say these measures do not go far enough, since they narrowly focus on the searchable web. It's said that this web-based focus may neglect the shadow Internet and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, which allow child predators to directly share pornographic images with one another without going through a central server or search engine. As an alternative, NetClean CEO Christian Berg claims to provide technology that can scan servers, laptops and desktops for known child abuse images, rather than URL-based tools that Google is using: "We’re not talking about URLs, but actual files, which means we can find things on USB sticks too," says Berg. He adds that the next step is "to do an investigation and notify the police."

Google's multi-million dollar cooperative investment, when added to existing and emerging technology, appears to be a strong step in the right direction to put criminal child sexual abuse images in the hands of law enforcement and out of the public domain. says "Law enforcement agencies are already using PhotoDNA to track and identify offending images. ... It’s possible law enforcement agencies could now use both the 'fingerprints' and 'DNA' of images and videos as a means of tackling tens of millions of images."

What can you do? Start a conversation with your children (or keep one going) so they feel comfortable discussing online problems they encounter, and cyber risks, including:
  • consequences of revealing personal information (name, age, address, telephone, pictures)
  • "private chats" with a stranger
  • meeting alone with anyone they met online 
  • predators seeking child victims and lying about their age, sex, and identity
  • responding to suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or harassing messages – instead, report these messages to CyberTipline or the police
Tweens and teens also need to know that sexting (sending a nude or semi-nude image in a text to someone) is a form of child pornography, even if the minor created the image. Besides ruining a child's reputation among their peers when these images are shared, they can end up in the hands of child predators or sextortionists.

If your teenager needs to talk to someone but may feel more comfortable talking to another teen, they can call Teen Line for confidential help and support at 800-852-8336 every evening 6 to 10 p.m. Or they can text "TEEN" to 839863.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Enslaved in the USA: Testimony of a Child's Survival

At a recent U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing, Chairman Senator Baucus declared child trafficking a form of slavery that "exists right here in America" and is "quickly becoming one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world."

"At least 100,000 children are exploited every year in the United States ... and most victims are between just 12 and 14 years old," said the senator. The senator also stated that because many Child Protective Service (CPS) workers are unfamiliar with human trafficking laws and "don't know how to handle cases involving trafficked children ... sex trafficking victims are often arrested and placed in juvenile detention facilities," and treated like criminals.

The senator's words echoed the experience of sex trafficking survivor and FAIR Girls Maryland Program Coordinator Asia Graves. Her story is a tragically common illustration of how the cycle of abuse continues until someone recognizes the warning signs and takes steps to stop it.

Asia's mother was a crack-cocaine addict and abuse victim herself, and her father was an alcoholic. Asia testified before the Senate committee that:

80 to 90% of victims of trafficking [victims] have been sexually abused. That is my story, too. I was raped [by] my mother’s drug dealers from the ages of 6 to 10 years old, which made me vulnerable to trafficking. I went to school and told my teachers as well as a school social worker who just believed that I was making it up. I stopped asking for help. My life as an American victim of modern day slavery could have been prevented. [T]he teachers and social workers who met me did not see the warning signs. By the time my pimp sold me, I was isolated and scared, which is exactly what most girls feel as they fall victim.

Enslaved at 16, a series of pimps sold her for sex all over America. She finally escaped three years later, and subsequently rebuilt her life with the help of a strong team of women leaders. "I hope someday to be a lawyer," she testified, "and take my past and use my work at FAIR Girls to truly ensure fewer girls fall victim to sex trafficking."

Asia recommends funding to open specialized homes for human trafficking victims, education for social workers and teachers to recognize and report trafficking red flags, and education for high risk youth inside the child welfare system to learn how to stay safe.

Congress has introduced legislation (SB 1118) to address child trafficking by, among other things, requiring state child welfare agencies to immediately report missing or abducted children to law enforcement.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Robot & Grandma

A couple of years ago, a "Skype-on-wheels" robot named Celia allowed adult children to remotely check on their aging parents. Now there are robots that could do the dishes, give them a bath, and hold a conversation.

Recently, a New York Times article gazed into the future of robotic caregiving to pose a "fundamental" question: "Should we entrust the care of people in their 70s and older to artificial assistants rather than doing it ourselves?"

The answer, of course, depends on who you ask. The makers of Paro (a furry baby-harp-seal-shaped therapy robot made to respond to its name, coo when petted, or cry when squeezed), would point to the technology's successes in treating Alzheimer's patients.

Similarly, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has designed a robot that can blink, giggle, and develop a personality when people interact with it, to assist in the therapy of people with autism. CMU roboticist Jim Osborn claims that "Those we tested it with love it and hugged it [and began] to think of it as something that is more than a machine with a computer."

But author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle is less sanguine. On seeing a 76-year-old patient share stories with the cuddly Paro, Turkle said, "I felt like this isn’t amazing; this is sad. We have been reduced to spectators of a conversation that has no meaning.... Giving old people robots to talk to is a dystopian view that is being classified as utopian."

Still others would say that personal assistant robots fill an important need at a time when the aging population is exponentially outpacing the caregiver pool.

But even robots that perform simple tasks (and don't do therapy) may come with psychological costs.

David E. Williams, in the Healthcare Collective blog calls it "spooky" that robots can give baths and do other personal tasks. Even if all the robot does is pick up, wash, and put away the dishes, Williams says, "you encounter issues of learned helplessness. If the robot can do it, why make the effort, even if effort is what provides purpose in life and staves off physical and cognitive decline?"

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Finding a Caring Caregiver

If an elderly loved one needs at-home care, how do you select a professional caregiver? With careful screening of the person or agency before making your choice.

Tragically, some caregivers physically or verbally abuse their patients — or simply neglect them. And financial exploitation, which leaves no visible marks, can be just as devastating.

Unfortunately, one does not need to look far for examples:
  • A Georgia homecare nurse caught on an ATM camera using her elderly patient's debit card, was indicted on charges of elder abuse and financial transaction card fraud for swiping more than $7,500 from the 86-year-old victim, $2 to $300 at a time.
  • In Illinois, a hospital nursing assistant befriended her 89-year-old dementia patient, and upon his discharge became his round-the-clock caregiver. Prosecutors say she obtained a power-of-attorney, allowing her to steal over $350,000 from his estate which she used to buy a new Mercedes, remodel her home, and enrich herself and her family. The caregiver was held on $350,000 bail and faces up to 15 years in prison on charges of felony financial exploitation of a senior.
Lack of caregiver screening, training, and experience accounts for many cases of elder abuse. As the Huffington Post reports, the Journal of American Geriatrics Society published a study finding that, nationwide, many caregivers are dangerously unqualified because agencies fail to conduct background checks, drug testing, or to require experience or training of new hires. Researchers conducting the study surveyed 180 agencies, but found that only 55 percent conducted federal background checks, and one-third administered drug tests.

The article includes these tips for choosing a caregiver:

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Babies Teach Empathy

In November 2011, a 15-year-old Nova Scotia girl was gang-raped. After someone used their cell phone to circulate a photo of the sexual assault, Rehtaeh Parsons endured more than a year of cyberbullying and harassment until she couldn't take it anymore. Rehtaeh was taken off life support on April 7, 2013 – three days after she tried to hang herself.
Rehtaeh's mother wrote on her Facebook tribute page, "Rehtaeh is gone today because of the four boys that thought that raping a 15-year-old girl was OK and to distribute a photo to ruin her spirit and reputation would be fun. All the bullying and messaging and harassment that never let up are also to blame. Lastly, the justice system failed her. Those are the people that took the life of my beautiful girl."

How can we prevent tragedies like these? An anti-bullying program that is gaining national attention centers on babies teaching empathy to young children. Roots of Empathy is a social and emotional learning program for K-8 students which started in Toronto. The mission of the program is to reduce aggressive behavior as a way of decreasing bullying. In 2007, the program was introduced to US schools, and has spread to California, New York, and parts of Washington.

Baby Claire visits a kindergarten class once a month, and a Roots of Empathy instructor also visits the classroom to help the students recognize Claire's development and label her feelings. The students then discuss why Claire is happy or sad, and how they have similar feelings.

A 2011 study of 270,000 students compared those students who participated in social and emotional learning programs like Roots of Empathy, with those who didn't. The study found that the students in these programs not only had increased social and emotional skills, but they also had an 11 percent increase in standardized achievement test scores.

Claire's mother says, "The tone of the room changes when Claire comes in, and I think kids start to think about how it feels to be treated a certain way, because they don't like it when she gets upset."

Monday, March 25, 2013

Educating Teachers on Mandated Reporting

We wrote an earlier post about an elementary school principal in San Jose, California, who was convicted of misdemeanor failing to report suspected child abuse after a mother and her daughter told the principal about a second-grade teacher who acted "strangely" while alone with the girl in a classroom.

In Brentwood, California, the school district paid $950,000 to settle a lawsuit against one of its special education teachers, Dina Holder, who pleaded no contest to misdemeanor child abuse after throwing a five-year-old special needs student onto the floor and kicking him. The teacher's aides reported the incident to the school principal who waited two days before calling Child Protective Services (CPS), and never submitted a follow-up written report as required by law.

As a result of reports like these, the Bay Area News Group conducted a survey of California school districts and found that less than half that responded had provided annual training on recognizing and reporting suspected child abuse.  And, some districts didn't understand what the law requires. For example, some districts require employees to first report suspected abuse to school administrators rather than calling the authorities. However, the law requires mandated reporters to report their suspicions directly to CPS or police – reporting to school administrators does not fulfill their legal duty.

This survey prompted California's State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, to send a letter to all school districts, requesting information about their child abuse training.  Torlakson also said he would support legislation to strengthen the state's mandated reporter law.

California Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan has introduced legislation that would require all school districts to adopt policies outlining child abuse reporting requirements and to review those policies annually with all employees.

However, William Grimm, senior attorney at Oakland's National Center for Youth Law, doesn't think the proposed legislation goes far enough. "A large part of the problem is the district's failure to provide training that helps school staff understand what should be reported. Until training is mandated for all school staff, there will continue to be victims whose suffering goes unreported."