Scheme swindles helpful elderly
By CHRIS TISCH
CLEARWATER -- The elderly victims think they are doing the right thing. It's their goodness that the criminals prey upon.
The victims think they're helping to catch a crook. They think they are helping an investigator for their bank.
But the good guy is actually the bad guy. And in the end, the victim is left bereft of money they worked decades to save.
It's happened three times in Clearwater and Largo in the last week, with three elderly victims swindled out of thousands of dollars.
Scam artists called the elderly victims at home and convinced them they were high-ranking bank officials who were investigating a thieving employee. The scammers then asked the victims to help with their investigation by withdrawing money from their bank and handing it over to them.
The three victims, thinking they were helping catch a thief, complied. An 83-year-old woman in Clearwater lost $19,000 in the scam last week. Another 83-year-old lost $10,200. And a 79-year-old woman lost $4,000 in the scam in Largo.
Police think there are more victims out there, some who may feel ashamed to come forward because they're embarrassed that they were tricked.
"If we've got two reports, I would bet there's at least six more out there," said Clearwater Detective Mark Weaver, who specializes in fraud investigations.
Police sought media coverage of the scheme, most commonly known as the bank examiner scam, on Thursday in an effort to educate others not to be taken by the ruse.
The bottom line: Banks and police would never ask a resident to participate in catching a thieving bank employee. If someone receives a call from someone making such a pitch, they should immediately call their bank and the police.
Prevention is a powerful tool for police in these scams, which are very tough to solve. The elderly victims usually have only brief contact with the scam artist, who they usually meet in a parking lot after the withdrawal.
"A lot of them go unsolved," Weaver said.
Pinellas sheriff's detectives arrested a scammer in 1999 on charges he used the bank examiner scheme to steal $16,000 from three elderly victims. Edward Gould, who had even promised one of his victims that he would come back to have tea with her, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his crimes.
Weaver said he's not sure if the recent scams have been committed by the same people. The con artists are sometimes travelers who move from one city to another looking for victims. They may make cold calls from a phone book or read newspaper obituaries looking for names of potential victims.
In one case last week, the scammer urged the elderly victim to call the bank to verify his legitimacy. The man gave the woman a phone number, but instead of going to the bank, it went to a pay phone outside a grocery store. A woman, a probable accomplice of the man who called the elderly victim, pretended she was a bank official and said the man who had called was legitimate.
The victim met the con man in the area of Jacobson's on McMullen-Booth Road. The man, thought to be about 35, was dressed in a light tan shirt with a blue sport coat. He was white, clean-shaven, average build, about 6 feet tall and had a buzz-style hair cut.
The other Clearwater victim described the con man in her case as a white man in his late 40s or early 50s who is 6 feet tall and husky. He wore a wrinkly brown business suit and dress shoes that were not shined. The scam artist met the victim in that case in the area of the Countryside Sears.
Police encouraged other possible victims to report the thefts. Anyone with information can call Detective Weaver at 562-4367.
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