Two men carrying badges and posing as police officers bilked an 80-year-old Fulton woman out of $1,000 Thursday, a crime that has left the victim with feelings of doubt and mistrust in a neighborhood she's lived in for 37 years.
The same two police imposters -- a tall black man who does the talking and an overweight white partner -- have pulled off three other similar schemes in the Mid-Atlantic region in the past week, according to county police.
"I'm a little uneasy to stay in my own home, and that makes me feel very bad," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. "They came in and seemed rather nice. It's not like they showed any signs of being reckless."
County police say the money was taken from the woman's home by two "bunko" artists who used police badges to gain the victim's trust while they carried out a common "flim-flam" trick to steal her savings.
Two clean-shaven men dressed in black suits came to the door of the woman's home, on Scaggsville Road, shortly before 11 a.m. and displayed silver badges pinned to the insides of their coats, police said.
The woman, who at first denied the men entrance to her home, changed her mind after seeing the badges.
"They acted like police and the badges seemed real," the victim said. "I had no reason to think that anyone would put on a disguise to get into my home."
The two men informed the woman, who lives alone, that they were investigating a shoplifting incident and that a suspect had mentioned the woman's name. Police believe the men knew the victim's name from her mailbox in front of the house.
When they asked if she had any guns, jewelry, drugs or money in the house, she told them about $1,000 she kept in a wallet in her bedroom, a police report said.
One of the men told her that the money wasn't safe in the house and that she should bring it to a bank the next day. He then went with her to the bedroom, where the woman took out the money.
His partner offered to count the money and put it in an envelope for her. He then slipped the cash into a yellow envelope he had pulled from his briefcase, police said.
As he sealed the envelope, his accomplice distracted the woman with a string of questions. She was then handed an envelope she believed to contain the cash, and the men left, she told police.
When she opened the envelope the next day, she discovered that it contained only strips of newspapers cut the size of bills, police said.
"These guys were very good and they seemed to have a routine worked out," said Sgt. Gary L. Gardner, a police spokesman. "We don't get a lot of bunko crime in Howard County, but people should be aware that we do get these people coming through here every now and then."
County police received information Monday from police in Virginia, Cambridge and Annapolis who said the same two men -- both of whom appear to be in their mid-40s to early 50s -- had carried out similar flim-flams on elderly people last week.
Virginia state police are investigating the theft of $700 in cash and jewelry in an incident in the Eastern Shore area on Sept. 18. The following day, the con men struck again taking $400 in Cambridge and $700 in Annapolis, Gardner said.
For the victim, the money isn't as much of an issue as is the emotional trauma of being tricked by strangers in her own home.
"As for the money, I've kissed it good-bye," said the victim. The loss will not cause her financial hardship, she added.
"But I hope they catch these guys. What they did was really indecent."
Less than six bunko cases have been investigated by county police in the last two years. None of those incidents involved people posing as police officers, said Officer Karen Shinham of the police Crime Prevention unit.
In Howard County, as in most jurisdictions in the Baltimore metropolitan area, police carry brass badges, not silver ones. Police advise that anyone contacted at home by a police officer should ask for the officer's four-digit identification number which should then be confirmed by calling headquarters at 992-2266.
Elderly residents are typically targeted by flim-flam operators, who usually try to trick people out of their money by using attractive business come-ons and mail-order offers, Shinham said.
The elderly people are a target because many who live alone are accustomed to storing large amounts of cash in their homes, police say. But cracking down on the flim-flam men is a problem since many of the incidents don't get reported, says Shinham.
"We probably have a bigger problem with fraud than we realize," she said. "Most don't report the crimes since they're either embarrassed or don't think it'll do any good."
The Howard County police Crime Prevention unit offers occasional seminars on how senior citizens can better protect themselves from crime.
For information on an upcoming seminar, contact the prevention unit at 992-2230.
Police offer the following tips to ward off con men attempting to trick people out of money: