Elderly victimized by impostors

March 31, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

At least 20 elderly Baltimoreans have been robbed in recent months -- in some cases losing thousands of dollars -- in a scheme by con artists claiming to be Social Security officials, and demanding the return of purported overpayments.

The scam usually begins with a telephone call in which the victim is told of the overpayment and the need for immediate repayment to prevent a cutoff of future checks, according to David W. Richardson, Baltimore district manager for the Social Security Administration.

One victim, a 74-year-old widow living in public housing, said she was told in her telephone call a few weeks ago that "if I didn't get the money, my Social Security would be cut off and it would take me six months to get back on. They wanted $500."

Although the woman told the caller she did not have the money, the caller was insistent, and the victim -- who asked not to be identified -- was intimidated. "If my Social Security be cut off," she said yesterday, "I have no way of surviving." She had $200 and borrowed another $200 in an attempt to meet the demand, and followed instructions to walk out to a nearby bus stop where "they said they would send somebody" to pick up the cash.

"They try to get as much as they can," Mr. Richardson said. "In one case they got $6,000. There was one lady who had a bag of cash in her apartment -- cash she was saving for her burial -- that she turned over to these impostors."

At least two people -- a man and a woman -- are involved in the scheme, talking to the victims by telephone and sometimes picking them up in a taxi or unlicensed "hack" cab to get the cash.

"In every case, they meet them somewhere that is not a Social Security office," Mr. Richardson said. "We would never send anyone out to take cash for an overpayment, never.

"We prefer to be paid by check or money order, and you will receive official notice in the mail from us before we'll ask for repayment."

Mr. Richardson said 20 cases had been reported since October, and three in recent weeks. He said many other cases may have gone unreported. The scam is similar to others involving bogus inspectors or power company bill collectors who demand cash payments, sometimes even coming into the homes and stealing from elderly victims who are easily confused.

Mr. Richardson said the incidents are being investigated by the Baltimore police and state's attorney's office, as well as the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

He urged anyone who has been victimized, or is contacted with a demand for such a cash payment, to call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213.

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