Woman guilty in theft scheme

Nearly $34,000 stolen from elderly women in phone call operation

5 counts in plea agreement

Victims were told utilities, Medicare in jeopardy

October 17, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A con artist pleaded guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday to stealing nearly $34,000 from five elderly women by scaring them into thinking they had to give her money or face losing their health care or electricity.

Dundalk resident Vaneka Powers, 22, was convicted yesterday on five counts of continuing theft scheme, which included bilking almost $25,000 from a 75-year-old woman shortly before her death, according to prosecutors.

"These were sweet, salt-of-the-earth people," said Assistant State's Attorney Isabel Mercedes Cumming, who prosecuted the case. "The elderly are so vulnerable, they tend to believe people who call."

In a scheme that began in April 1998, Powers, who did not have a job, used the phone book to find victims. Her method was simple: She called a home and would speak only if an elderly person answered, Cumming said.

She claimed to be an employee of Medicare or Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., and informed victims that their benefits or utilities would be cut off unless they gave her cash, according to prosecutors. Powers would then pick up the money from victims at their homes or send her 14-year-old sister.

In December 2000, Berlise Mason, 69, lost about $3,000 to Powers just days before Mason was to have an operation for cancer.

Powers "called me and said to cover my insurance, I had to put up $1,900 or I wouldn't get the operation," Mason said yesterday in a phone interview. "I was so upset, I really wanted that operation."

Mason told Powers she didn't have the total amount, but had about $1,000 in cash in the house. Powers came by and picked up the money.

Later that day, Powers called Mason back and said she still owed $1,900 to Medicare. Powers persuaded Mason to withdraw $2,000 from the bank. Powers went by her house again and picked up the second installment.

Mason eventually realized that she had been the victim of a scheme, prompting her to call her son, who called police.

"I didn't get the money back," Mason said. "Oh my Lord, I really need my little money. To tell you the truth, I'm in debt. I'm still paying my hospital bills. She took my money, all my money."

Powers, who lives in the 700 block of N. Avendale Ave. with her mother and sister, used the money to buy electronics equipment, including televisions and videocassette recorders, prosecutors said.

In 1998, Powers pleaded guilty to robbing an elderly woman who was found tied up with a sock stuffed in her mouth. In that case, Powers was given a suspended jail sentence.

According to yesterday's plea agreement, Powers will be sentenced to up to two years in prison, followed by five years' probation and restitution payments.

She is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 3 before Judge Thomas E. Noel.

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