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Study tracks fraud against elderly

A Stetson University study is meant to determine the scope of such crimes in Florida, in hopes of curbing them.

By NICOLE JOHNSON
Published March 20, 2006


[Times photos: Bill Serne
From left, Joyce Cich, attorney Patricia Fitzgerald and handyman Paul Clark look over permits for redoing repairs to Cich's hurricane-damaged mobile home. Clark has offered to do the work for free after an unlicensed handyman took much of Cich's insurance money.
Joyce Cich's mobile home was damaged in the 2004 hurricanes and hasn't been correctly repaired.

Tips to avoid home improvement scams

PINELLAS PARK - Joyce Cich thought she'd found a reputable contractor who could fix the damage Hurricanes Jean, Frances and Ivan inflicted on her mobile home in 2004.

What the 69-year-old got was a handyman who wasn't licensed to do the work and shoddy repairs that cost her much of the $40,000 she received from her insurance company.

And she's not alone, say advocates for the elderly.

Elder consumer fraud happens often in Florida, and the crimes appear to be on the rise.

"The State Attorney's Office, I do believe, has seen an increase in the past five years," said Assistant State Attorney Gary White, a member of the office's Consumer Fraud Unit.

Trouble is, just how much of a problem elder fraud has become is anybody's guess. No designated state agency tracks the crime.

But that could change as a research team from Stetson University College of Law finishes up almost two years of work.

For 18 months, professors and dozens of law students have pored over thousands of police reports from 400 law enforcement agencies across the state to determine the scope of economic fraud in Florida, said Stetson law professor Nick Cox, a consumer protection fellow.

The research will be completed in about two months as a part of a federally funded project titled the Elder Consumer Protection Project.

"The Better Business Bureau and Department of Consumer Services are out there to fight consumer scams, but oftentimes there's only so much one agency can do," said Rebecca Morgan, director of the Center for Excellence in Elder Law at Stetson. "We want to show people how scams work and how easy it is to become a victim of a scam."

Researchers have traveled to each county in the state to give speeches on how to detect scams. And the project Web site , elder.law.stetson.edu, features re-enactment videos of scam scenarios and resources for elderly residents who think they might have been victims of fraud.

Once finished, the Stetson team's research will serve as the first complete study of elder fraud occurrences statewide.

"The hope is we'll be able to capture numbers and produce a report that law enforcement and the attorney general all find helpful," Cox said.

Today's elderly are especially vulnerable to fraud, said Gabrielle Wiechec, an advocate with the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, because "trust is part of their being," she said.

"These people grew up without locking their doors and deals were made with a handshake," Wiechec said. "So, it's engrained in them to trust someone to be a law-abiding citizen."

In October 2004, Stacey Shorb replaced Cich's roof and floor in her back room. Cich noticed grout cracking around the floorboards in her back closet in early February after a record-setting rainstorm soaked much of the Tampa Bay area.

"It (the closet) was wet and moldy," Cich said."Each day it was getting worse."

She called Shorb. He said he would come by to look at the work, but never did, Cich said.

Shorb, who is still working as a handyman, denied wrongdoing.

"I felt like I did a job that she allowed," Shorb said."She was paid several thousand dollars and she cut corners on everything."

Shorb also said he did not know he needed a license to do the work.

Shorb covered up the plumbing vents on Cich's roof, causing noxious gases that vent outside to go back into the woman's trailer, said Rick Adkins, a Pinellas County consumer services investigator.

Shorb could face a third-degree felony charge if the State Attorney's Office concludes that he conducted the contract work during a state of emergency without a license, authorities said.

The charge carries a maximum of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, White said.

"The main thing to do is when you're thinking about hiring a contractor, check with us and the county licensing board," Adkins said."If you get someone whose licensed, they should know what they're doing."

[Last modified March 20, 2006, 00:36:17]


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