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At the WV Legislature: ‘Restitution Assistance Fund’ to provide partial financial relief to scam victims

By Matt Young, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – W.Va. State Auditor John “JB” McCuskey, several state legislators and representatives from AARP-WV, in a press conference on Tuesday, announced the creation of a “restitution assistance fund” to provide partial financial relief to scam victims. 

Auditor John B. McCuskey

“We all know that people receive phone calls and emails from people who are trying to do West Virginians harm,” McCuskey told those in attendance. “What we know is that at the end of these investigations, many of the people who have been taken advantage of end up with nothing left in their 401k, and the people who have absconded with their money are gone.”

SB 576 and HB 3250 – sponsored by Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, and Del. Steve Westfall, respectively – collectively known as the “Victim Restitution Assistance bill,” would establish a fund for the purposes of reimbursing victims of fraud, and other securities violations. Under the terms of the bill, seniors may be reimbursed up to 50% of their financial loss, while all other victims of such crimes may receive up to 25%. 

“A good portion of the folks who find themselves in this predicament are AARP members,” McCuskey noted. “When you’re working through your retirement savings, you have less time to pay yourself back. This fund is the most meaningful for people closest to retirement age, and that’s why AARP has really stepped up to help us work on this.”

Senator Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, 1st

According to McCuskey, the bill would be funded from the state’s general revenue fund. McCuskey added that, “This has a zero fiscal note. We are not increasing fees, and we are not increasing cash burdens. We are using money that we’re already collecting.”

At the conclusion of McCuskey’s remarks, AARP-WV State Director Gaylene Miller said, “Investment fraud is a growing problem. Particularly among older Americans who find themselves more of a target as scammers become more sophisticated.”

“From robocalls, emails, television, social media, and more – it’s easier than ever to connect with people to try to convince them of new opportunities to ‘get rich quick’ with ‘once in a lifetime investment opportunities,’” Miller continued. “And the financial losses suffered by older victims are often greater, as the auditor (McCuskey) mentioned, with more to lose from their years of hard work, savings and benefits.”

Miller added that on behalf of AARP’s “230,000 members in the Mountain State,” she is grateful to McCuskey, as well as bill sponsors Weld and Westfall.

Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson

“I also want to recognize Chair Mazzocchi (Margarita, R-Logan), who is chair of the Senior, Children, and Family Issues Committee in the House of Delegates,” Miller noted. “They heard about this issue [last year] and that really started the ball rolling.”

“This represents another important tool in our tool box to battle financial exploitation for all West Virginians,” Miller concluded.

Sen. Weld was next to the podium, and began by jokingly saying, “I’m here to talk about your car’s extended warranty.”

Weld explained that during his time as a Brooke County prosecutor, many elderly victims were defrauded by family members as a result of drug addiction. According to Weld, in most cases, there was no recourse for recovering the stolen funds. 

“This bill doesn’t address that exact situation,” Weld noted. “But if this bill can help prevent one more person in the state from having that same look on their face that I saw so many times as a prosecutor, then it’s worth it. And I want to thank the AARP and Auditor McCuskey for the work they’ve put in to create this legislation.”

Del. Westfall echoed the sentiments expressed by Weld, saying, “I’m very proud to be a sponsor of this bill.”

Westfall believes that West Virginia is a prime target for scammers because it is a “giving state,” noting, “We’ve always got your back, and we’ll help when times get tough. People think they are going to help somebody, and then they find out that they’re not.”

Gaylene Miller

“It (Victim Restitution Assistance bill) makes good financial sense,” Westfall added. “Anytime we can help West Virginians, especially our seniors, that’s what we should do.”

According to Westfall, many of these types of crimes go unreported due to the embarrassment felt by the victim. Miller reinforced this point by explaining that one-in-four seniors in the United States fall victim to a financial crime each year. Miller further explained that estimates show only one-in-44 financial-crime victims report their encounter to law enforcement.

“This legislation will help those who have less time to recuperate these losses and bear the devastating financial and emotional toll of these crimes,” Miller added.

HB 3250 is currently pending before the House Judiciary Committee, while SB 576 awaits consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee.