Seniors increasingly targeted by con artists

police 'struggling to keep up'

January 14, 2009|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Scams targeting the elderly have become so pervasive that officials in Baltimore County are boosting efforts to prevent them. But with older people living longer, the swindles are multiplying faster than anyone can track.

"We're struggling to keep up," county Police Chief James W. Johnson said during a meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council yesterday in Towson. He estimated that he soon will need eight to 10 more officers just to deal with the problem.

"We're seeing a significant increase in fraud cases involving elderly victims," Johnson said, citing statistics that show there were 184 reported fraud crimes against elderly people in the county in the first nine months of last year, compared with 149 during the same period in 2007.

Johnson and other officials at the meeting agreed that the actual number is likely much bigger, since many victims are embarrassed that they have been duped and keep it from their children and others.

To make matters worse, he said, the vast number of computers now in circulation make such crimes easier. In many cases, con artists create Web sites that mimic real ones.

"There will come a time when virtually every crime will be cyber-related," Johnson said. "It's changing the police workplace dramatically. I need career professionals in this technology."

To help seniors stave off such scams, the county's Department of Aging has published a pair of comprehensive brochures, one titled "They Want to Take Your Money" and the other "They're Calling and They Won't Hang Up." In a foreword, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. says telemarketing scams rob American consumers of $40 million every year, and that more than a third of the victims are senior citizens.

Arnold J. Eppel, director of the Department of Aging, said at the meeting that lists of people who have been successfully ripped off are often sold to other swindlers.

"Then they're on the suckers list, and they get scammed a second time," he said.

The panoply of deceptions these days includes direct-mail schemes, telemarketing ruses, investment rip-offs and door-to-door cons. In the latter, contractors promise repairs or replacements of roofs, driveways and the like, insist on a hefty deposit and often are never seen again.

"There are huge losses because of contract scams," Johnson said. Some self-professed roofers, for instance, start in Florida in winter, he said, and work their way up the coast as the weather gets warmer, hitting hundreds of homeowners along the way.

Karen Straughn, who runs the consumer complaints division in the office of state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, said the shaky economy is prompting a spike in responses to pitches from strangers.

"More and more people are taking a chance," Straughn said. Once a sting has been perpetrated on an unsuspecting person, she said, there is often "little we can do other than refer them to the police."

AVOID SCAMS

* Never give your credit card, checking account, Social Security or driver's license numbers to a caller unless you initiated the call to a reputable company.

* Don't be pressured into acting immediately.

* If someone knocks on your door and offers a service or product, check their credentials carefully with authorities, and don't sign anything until you do.

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