Victim advocates plan a course of action against scammers who prey on the elderly. From left are Gabrielle Wiechec, victim advocate coordinator for the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco and Pinellas Inc.; Amy Tyson, Pinellas Park’s victim advocate, and Officer Donna Saxer, who investigates many crimes against the elderly.
PINELLAS COUNTY – Elderly residents often are targeted by scam artists who steal millions of dollars each year through various swindles.
Scams can be anything from magazine subscription campaigns to bank fraud to befriending lonely people while siphoning off their bank accounts.
Illicit rackets also include shady home repair contractors, staged accidents and distraction thefts.
One of the most popular scams today is the advanced fee lottery sweepstakes in which victims are asked to send money to cover taxes and process fees.
In Pinellas Park just recently a woman in her 80s lost more than $40,000 after sweepstakes telemarketers conned her over a period of several weeks.
The woman, whose name is being withheld, sent money orders to a Canadian address until she ran out of cash.
Cases like that are not unusual says Gabrielle Wiechec, senior victim advocate coordinator for the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco and Pinellas Inc.
Her agency investigates crimes against senior citizens as do police and victim advocates.
Not only do people lose their money, but in some cases they are liable for thousands of dollars in credit card bills for cash advances and even federal taxes when retirement plans are tapped.
“It happens more than you’d think,” Wiechec said. “Victims believe they have an opportunity to live a little better in old age or to leave loved ones an inheritance.”
Magazine scams by groups that blanket the country with deceptive letters announcing sweepstakes winners have been around for years. At least one Pinellas County company promotes a million-dollar annual sweepstakes. People call a toll free number and discover that their account number only will be placed in a lottery with thousands of others. They then are pressured into buying magazine subscriptions.
“Scam artists prey on a generation of people that are very trusting,” Wiechec said.
Elderly people fall victim because of illness, social isolation or being homebound. Many suffer from physical or mental impairments and believe that the scams are legitimate.
Law enforcement officials say the chances of winning a million-dollar sweepstakes is one in 50 million.
Telemarketers know the weaknesses of the elderly. Often they will build relationships with lonely victims while bleeding them of money. Companies sell mailing lists divided by age and even economic categories. Internet Web sites also are viable sources of potential victims.
The so-called “Nigerian Scam” is popular these days. Victims receive a letter or e-mail indicating that they won a lottery or can share in a multimillion-dollar business venture.
“It starts with a demand for processing fees and then money for taxes,” said Amy Tyson, Pinellas Park police’s victim advocate. “You would be surprised at the kind of information a person discloses during a typical conversation with a stranger.”
One awards notification letter claming to be from the “Spanish Sweepstakes Lottery” tells the recipient of a $615,810 share of a $10 million prize. An application for “lottery payment processing” asks for, among other things, the name and account number of the recipient’s bank.
Officer Donna Saxer of the Pinellas Park police said victims often don’t report scams due to embarrassment or fear that investigators will not take them seriously.
Police, however, are trained to be more understanding and sincere about the plight of victims.
“If something sounds too good to be true, than it is,” Saxer said.
Wiechec said everyone is susceptible to falling victim to scams. Identify theft, too, is a growing problem. She suggests that people run credit checks on themselves and be aware of giving out personal information to strangers or over the Internet.
No place is safe these days. Just this month a cashier at a Pinellas County department store used a customer’s credit card that was left behind to go on a shopping spree.
What can be done about it? Hang up on telemarketers. Don’t let strangers in the house and call police about suspicions.
Scammers have been arrested and imprisoned. Two Montreal telemarketers received 30 months behind bars after they drove to Los Angeles to pick up $140,000 in cash in return for a $5.5 million counterfeit check. Unfortunately, Saxer said, for every person that is caught hundreds of others get away with their crimes.
So great is the problem in Pinellas County that Wiechec is willing to speak to any group or organization on ways to prevent victimization. A call to 570-9696 will bring her to a meeting.
“Information is the key to stopping these people,” Wiechec said. “We are the link between the victim and the criminal justice system.”