tampabay.com

Seminar offers seniors tips on foiling traveling criminals

By LIN YOUNG
Published April 4, 2007


Although criminals will prey on almost anyone, they often target the elderly with various scams.

But when armed with a little information, seniors can avoid becoming victims.

"They seem to target neighborhoods and they find our seniors who are most at risk," said Gabrielle Wiechec, an advocate with the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas. "We would love it if they wouldn't become a victim in the first place."

A free seminar Thursday at Stetson University's College of Law will provide seniors with information on doing just that.

In the presentation "Beware of the Traveling Criminals," Donna Saxer, a crime prevention officer of the Pinellas Park Police department, will tell seniors how to avoid becoming victims.

"Hopefully people will come out because knowledge is the key. I hate to see people take somebody else's hard-earned living," Saxer said.

Traveling criminals defraud individuals by various schemes.

"Home repair is one of their big ones and it could be anything to do with it, roof repair or coating, painting, driveway painting or sealing, tree trimming, lightning rod installation, pretty much anything they think they can get away with," Saxer said.

Their work is often shoddy, using substandard materials and the traveling criminals "all have ties to Florida" because the state is conducive to the way they conduct their business as a tourist state where it is easy to blend in, she said.

If someone comes to your door offering to make home repairs send them away, and get three bids from contractors you contact and have checked out by calling the Pinellas County Contractor Licensing Board at 531-4784, Saxer said.

But shoddy home repairs aren't the only scam. Criminals will use a number of methods to gain access to a home.

"They can pose as anybody, police officers, maybe council members, somebody you would trust," Saxer said.

To get inside a home, traveling criminals might use any of a variety of ploys. They might get inside by saying they are from the utility company. Or they might gain entry by having the victim leave the house unlocked by posing as a utility worker trimming trees who needs to be shown what they should trim.

Either way, while one person distracts the victim others enter the house and rob it, Saxer said.

No matter what a stranger says don't let him or her in the house and don't leave your house and leave the door unlocked.

Saxer says there are other common sense ways people can keep themselves safe:

- Keep all doors and windows locked, including the garage, even if you are inside reading the paper or watching television.

- Be willing to hang up on callers you don't know.

- Always verify who is at your door before you open it. Tell them you will call the police to check them out; if they are legitimate they will wait, if not they will flee, she said.

"This is when it's okay to be rude, it's okay to say no," Saxer said.

An elderly woman who was recently raped opened her back door to someone she thought was from maintenance, Saxer said.

The seminar is one of a series offered by the Elder Consumer Protection Project at Stetson University to create awareness in the elderly community. It runs from 10:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. with time for questions.

It will be in the Eleazer Courtroom at 1401 61st St. S, Gulfport, across from the library on the Stetson campus.

After the seminar, law students will help attendees sign up for removal from lists for unsolicited credit card, insurance and other offers.

For more information, call the Elder Consumer Protection Project at 562-7800 ext. 7715.