One year ago, Margaret Pietz was almost the victim of fraud when a man claiming to be a lawyer called her and said her grandson owed $4,000 in car repairs related to a traffic accident. He even put a young man on the phone who addressed her as “grandma.”
Pietz started to realize something was up when she was asked to send the funds in the form of Target gift cards and to not tell anyone else in the family.
“He thought he was calling a gullible grandma,” Pietz said. “The more I thought about it, the more I knew it was a scam.”
Pietz told the story of her brush with fraud at an information gathering session held by Pennsylvania Attorney General-Elect Josh Shapiro on Tuesday in Squirrel Hill.
“We have to figure out an easy, simple method to get what happened to you and that knowledge into our office,” Shapiro said. “I can guarantee you were not that person’s only call of the day.”
Shapiro held five input sessions across the state as he prepares to take the oath of office Jan 17. Each focused on one aspect of his job, including combating the heroin epidemic and gun violence. Tuesday’s session in Pittsburgh focused on consumer fraud and protection.
Among those giving input Tuesday was Veterans Leadership Council of Pittsburgh Director Ben Stahl. There are lots of programs available to help vets as they transition back into society, he said, but there are also scams.
“It seems as though veterans get targeted a little more because you hear, ‘Oh, well you’re a veteran, I’m going to take care of you, I wouldn’t do this if you weren’t a veteran.’ People play on that emotion,” Stahl said.
For-profit education companies targeting veterans' federal education stipends are frequent offenders, he said.
Shapiro called the practice “disgusting.”
PNC Bank Director of Consumer Advocacy Michelle Neidhardt said the bank works hard to detect fraud and abuse, especially among seniors. Shapiro asked her if she could share patterns and trends with his office.
“I think we would need to do it in a way that maintains the privacy and security of our individual customers, but in an aggregate way, (yes),” Neidhardt said.
Shapiro pledged to create an Office of Public Engagement in his first few days.
“Both to intake information as well as to share information about what we’re doing,” Shapiro said. “[Victims] don’t know who to call in the Attorney General’s office; they don’t know how reach us. So something as simple as, 'Here’s a website, here’s a 1-800 number, here’s a way to text us information.' Just getting that out is going to help us do a better job keeping Pennsylvanians safe.”
Shapiro declined to wade into the sex abuse investigation involving the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh or answer lingering questions about competition between UPMC and Highmark. He's heard about arguments between the two insurance and health care providers since he first hit the campaign trail, he said, and that alone points to a larger state-wide concern.
“You have similar issues in the central part of the state, the northeastern part of the state and the southeastern part of the state where there is a lot of consolidation,” Shapiro told the group. “For me, it’s really important that as that consolidation occurs we end up with a competitive environment and an environment where people can get access to affordable health care.”