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Want to fight senior fraud? Learn the con artists' tricks

Published May 2, 2004

There are few things more despicable than cheating an elderly person, but business is booming. Here are some examples from state investigators:

- An insurance agent befriends an 86-year-old woman and persuades her to cash in $150,000 in stocks and CDs to buy what he calls "drawer" insurance policies. Maybe that's because he just sticks her paperwork in a drawer and takes the money.

- A home health aide suggests to a couple in their 80s that she quit her agency and work for them directly. Soon she has them tripling her salary. When the wife dies, the aide marries the "confused" husband and buys new cars for herself and her adult daughters.

- A senior citizen answers an advertisement for a "guaranteed" return on investment of 12 percent a year. He forks over $80,000 and gets "interest" payments for six months. Then the company declares bankruptcy, and his money is lost.

- A 92-year-old woman gets a telephone offer for a "free analysis" of her water. It turns out there are "poisons." She buys an $1,800 purification system. Salesmen persuade her during the next six months to "upgrade" her system four times. She spends $18,000 in all.

These days, the water-purifying scam is especially hot again, said Nick Cox and Rebecca Morgan, two professors at the Stetson University College of Law who specialize in fighting elderly consumer fraud.

Water filtration and purifying was popular a few years ago but had somewhat quieted down. Now it's back. Salesmen even carry little chemistry sets to scare their victims.

On another front, with the coming of the new Medicare drug plan, there already are scams and fake cards in circulation, Morgan said. Also on the rise are sales of "annuities" in which seniors simply give away their life savings, believing they are investing it.

May is Older Americans Month, and the month kicks off this week with some local events to raise public awareness about fraud against seniors.

The Stetson College of Law will hold a consumer forum Tuesday to dispense advice and warnings about these and other scams.

It's free. You're invited. Come if you're interested in educating yourself about fraud. Come if you're a friend or family member of someone you're worried about.

The event starts at 1:30 p.m. in the school's Great Hall. Stetson is at 1401 61st St. S in Gulfport. The PSTA No. 14 bus stops twice an hour on 15th Avenue S close by. To reserve a seat or ask a question, call (727) 562-7393.

Besides Morgan and Cox, speakers include: Scott Farr, chief of Medicare fraud for state Attorney General Charlie Crist; Tom Sadaka, formerly of the statewide prosecutor's office and an expert on preventing identity theft; and James McMaken of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who will discuss durable medical equipment scams.

If you can't make Tuesday's event at Stetson, or even if you can, there's another excellent event Wednesday: the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas Inc. is holding a forum on fraud against seniors from 1 to 4 p.m. at Sunshine Multi Purpose Senior Center, 330 5th St. N, St. Petersburg. For information, call (727) 570-9696, ext. 279.

Participants at the event Wednesday will include Gulfcoast Legal Services, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Attorney General's Office, CASA, the St. Petersburg Police Department, St. Petersburg Times Action reporter Nancy Paradis (check out her column on water filters today) and the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.

Cox, a former criminal prosecutor and assistant state attorney general, said his first piece of advice to senior citizens is to get on the state's do-not-call list to block unsolicited sales pitches. He warns seniors not to share their personal information with anyone who contacts them out of the blue, whether by e-mail seeking to "verify" their account or whether it's a guy who knocks on the door offering to fix the air conditioner.

Loneliness and isolation make some seniors more susceptible to scams, Cox and Morgan warned. The most aggressive salesmen simply refuse to leave until they have a signature. But even the quieter con men know they will always have the help of all-too-willing victims. The cliche applies: Anything that seems too good to be true, isn't true.

[Last modified May 2, 2004, 01:05:38]

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