The fraud-fighting strategy was supposed to work like this:

Someone walks into a money-wiring business asking to send a large amount of cash overseas. The clerk checks the customer’s name against a list of vulnerable adults blocked from using that service.

If there’s a match, the clerk refuses to carry out the transaction. A potential scam is thwarted.

It sounded so good that the Legislature passed a measure in 2013 creating the “no-transmit” list and Gov. Mark Dayton signed it into law that spring.

More than three years later, the Department of Commerce hasn’t set up a no-transmit list, and has no intention of doing so. Rather than a blow against fraud, the no-transmit list is a “nightmare waiting to happen,” said Commerce Department spokesman Ross Corson.

Corson gave several reasons why. He said the Legislature gave the department no money to set up the system.

The law itself has internal conflicts, because it declares the list off-limits to the public but requires access by employees in money-wiring businesses.

And it creates a list of ideal victims for future scams.

“A database like this would become a target for hackers and scam artists,” Corson said. “Here’s this treasure trove of personal information about vulnerable adults.”

It’s not often I hear government officials expressing openly that they cannot secure their own data.

It’s also unusual to hear about an agency deciding, on its own, to ignore state law.

Then again, the law’s two main sponsors, DFLers Rep. Joe Atkins and Sen. Terri Bonoff, are leaving the Legislature.

Bonoff said she didn’t know, until I told her, that commerce had big problems with the no-transmit list.

“I think we should all be concerned when the Legislature passes a law, the governor signs it and the agency can decide that it’s onerous, and not implement it,” she said.

Bonoff said she preferred to keep the focus on the law’s intent: To attack the problem of senior-targeted scams, which depend on the relative anonymity of money-wiring services like MoneyGram and Western Union.

The scammers pose as computer repair people, who demand money to clean viruses that they planted with malware.

They tell people that they have won sweepstakes worth millions but have to pay the taxes upfront. They pose as adult grandchildren who beg for money to get out of jail in a foreign country.

And they nearly always direct their victims to use a money transmitter to pay them off.

At first glance, the no-transmit list sounds like a no-fly list for suspected terrorists. But it’s more analogous to the do-not-call list. Vulnerable adults, their loved ones, law enforcement or the money transmitters add their names to the list, presumably after they’ve fallen victim to fraud.

In 2010, a Bloomington woman told me she made six separate trips to money transmitters, so she could send money to someone posing as her grandson in distress. She lost $17,000.

The no-transmit list “was a third-party way of trying to protect somebody who may have been scammed before,” said Mary Jo George, a lobbyist for the AARP, which supported the bill. The fact that the Commerce Department didn’t enforce the law is “disappointing,” George said, although adding that AARP shared the concerns about how much personal information would have to be shared to make it work.

Corson said the department thinks there are better ways to protect seniors from fraud. The department is currently pushing a bill that would allow money transmitters, banks, investment advisers and stockbrokers to delay transactions if they believe it’s financial exploitation against a vulnerable adult.

Separately, the department will ask the Legislature to repeal the no-transmit list and end a crime-fighting experiment before it began.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.