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Fraud-fighting retirees take bite out of crime

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

BEVERLY HILLS -- They don't wear uniforms or carry badges, and their average age is about 70. But this group of crime-fighting retirees is bringing down some of the slickest scam artists in Citrus County.

About 15 men and women staff the "Seniors vs. Crime" storefront in Beverly Hills, a new resource for elderly residents who believe they've been the target of a fraud.

The storefront in Beverly Plaza opened about two months ago. But already more than $30,000 has been recovered, said Don Moran, the storefront's director.

"And we think it will only get better as more people discover that we're out here," said Moran, an employee of the center, which is a partnership between the Citrus County Sheriff's Office and the state Attorney General's Office.

The nondescript office is billed as a safe haven, a friendly place where everyone is on a first-name basis. The goal is to put at ease seniors who may be embarrassed or hesitant to tell their stories.

"The Sheriff's Office may be a little intimidating," Moran said. "But they don't feel intimidated by talking to one of their peers."

The office is open from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Anyone who feels they have been the target of a scam can enter and tell their story.

The volunteers discuss all potential cases, each bringing expertise from their former employment. For example, Barbara Harmon, 55, used to work in retail while Al Nagy, 73, specialized in real estate.

"Everyone brings in all these different backgrounds and opinions," said Gene Desotell, 50, a retired Wisconsin police officer. "There's a lot of diversity here."

If the complaint seems legitimate, they will add it to their ever-expanding case file. Sometimes, all it takes is a telephone call to set things right.

Being affiliated with the state Attorney General's Office "carries a lot of weight when you talk to people," said John Hartley, 72, one of the volunteers.

If necessary, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office will take over if there is potential criminal wrongdoing. So far, four complaints from the storefront have ended in arrests, Moran said.

Earlier this month, the Sheriff's Office charged Israel Chartrand with grand theft after an elderly woman told volunteers she had written him checks for plumbing work he never did. His court case is pending.

"I had a leak in my pipes and he said he could put in new plumbing for $900," said Rose Marie Eidam, 79. "And like an idiot, I paid him and he took off and never came back."

Eidam reported the crime to the Sheriff's Office, where deputies referred her to the senior storefront.

She said it was a relief to talk to the volunteers and know she wasn't alone.

"They made me feel a lot better," she said. "I thought I was the only dummy, but they said this kind of thing happens all the time."

Chartrand, 24, of Spring Hill was on probation at the time of his arrest for a charge of giving false information to a pawnbroker, according to court documents.

According to the 2000 census, Citrus County has the second-largest population of senior citizens in the state. The county's median age is 52.6, up 3.5 percent from where it stood during the last decade. Only one Florida county, Charlotte, has a greater median age.

Seniors vs. Crime was created by the Attorney General's Office to crack down on con artists who swindle the elderly. The first storefront was launched in Delray Beach about a year ago, said Don Ravenna, who oversees the Seniors vs. Crime program for the Attorney General's Office.

In that year, the office in Delray Beach has recovered more than $1-million, Ravenna said. Citrus is the second locality to launch a storefront; others are planned for Sumter and Marion counties.

"It's our hope that we will eventually have at least 10 to 12 across the state," said Ravenna, a retired Vermont State Police trooper who now lives in New Port Richey.

Between state agencies and service organizations such as the Better Business Bureau, there are a lot of resources available to assist the victims of scam artists. But many seniors are embarrassed to contact those groups. Many also want to hide the fraud from their children for fear of being thought incompetent.

That's why the Attorney General's Office seeks to create a casual atmosphere in the storefronts.

"Seniors enjoy talking to other seniors," Ravenna said.

And the volunteers enjoy giving back to the community and assisting their peers. "When you recover the first $5 for some little old lady, it just makes you feel so good," he added.

Seniors vs. Crime has an annual budget of about $200,000, which comes from court fines levied against offenders the program has exposed, Ravenna said.

Bea Crayton, 57, credits the program's volunteers with helping a friend recover more than $3,000 after a contractor tried to convince her she needed a replacement for her still-functioning air conditioner.

"She is so totally innocent," Crayton said of her friend, 67-year-old Peggy Edwards. "She doesn't steal from anybody and she doesn't expect anyone to steal from her."

Crayton was so impressed she has printed more than 1,000 fliers to distribute throughout her neighborhood.

As more people become informed, it becomes less likely ripoff artists will try to target their area, Crayton said.

"I think that if everybody gets involved, we wouldn't have so many seniors getting scammed," she said.

-- The Seniors vs. Crime program can be reached at (352) 746-3484.

-- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnson@sptimes.com.

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