By Rusty Bradshaw
As if senior citizens did not have enough to deal with, they also have to worry about scammers taking things, from small trinkets to their life savings.
Seniors are targeted more for confidence crimes than other age groups, partly because of their trusting nature, their affluence and because of the weaknesses that come with age. As much as law enforcement works to combat confidence crimes, they are on the rise, according to Paul Chagolla, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office District 3 commander.
“We see these crimes trending up, especially in the Sun Cities,” he said. “I wouldn’t say they are rampant, but we want to do what we can, and teach residents to protect themselves, in hope that it will not become rampant.”
Sun Cities residents have noticed the trend themselves.
“I’ve had guys talk to me in the grocery store parking lot, saying that my little dent needed fixing and they could do it,” Sun City West resident Maxine Richert stated in an email.
Sun City resident Tom Mallaro was approached in the parking lot of Fry’s, 10660 N.W. Grand Ave., by a young man and woman.
“They appeared to be homeless. I had a busted out headlight. He said he could fix it for about $25-30,” he stated in an email.
When he questioned the man about how that would be accomplished, he was told he’d have to go get the headlight first and would need the money to do that.
In both cases the residents did the right thing, according to Mr. Chagolla. They walked away from the situation.
Approaching residents, either in public settings or near their homes, is not entirely new. But MCSO officers identified this approach as a rising pattern about 45 days ago, according to MCSO Det. Sgt. R.J. Nevelle. In this approach the scammers, who usually work in teams, try to gain a person’s confidence, mostly by engaging them in casual conversation, he explained. If the approach is made near a resident’s home, the scammers try to convince the homeowner into letting them come inside the home.
“Once inside, one will distract the homeowner while the other goes through the house trying to find things to steal,” Mr. Nevelle said.
He related one Sun City incident in which a couple had just returned from the grocery store. While the wife was unloading their purchases, the scammers engaged the husband in conversation. By taking advantage of what appeared to be a lapse of memory, they gained his confidence.
“When his wife came from the kitchen she saw they were already in the house chatting with her husband,” he said.
Mr. Nevelle added MCSO investigators have about eight cases that fit that modus operandi. He also said there could be multiple groups working the communities.
Residents are also targeted by scammers using home repairs as their approach. This is most prevalent following harsh weather, but can happen year-round, Mr. Nevelle said.
“When approached by these people, do your homework,” he said. “Make sure they are licensed and bonded, and get their Registrar of Contractors number.”
In some of these instances, scammers try to work their way inside the home when the “repair” is outside. That is another attempt to distract the homeowner and allow accomplices to be unsupervised in or near the home.
“You can’t watch them all,” Mr. Nevelle said. “You have to stop letting them in the house.”
There are ways residents can protect their homes.
“There are plenty of devices out there to help make homes and vehicles more protected,” said MCSO Deputy Matt Summers.
While it may not stop the most determined scammers, posting properties, residential and business, with “No Trespassing” and “No Soliciting” signs can help.
“If properties are posted, we can take action when there is a complaint,” Mr. Chagolla explained.
He also urged residents to inform business managers or owners if they are approached on the business property.
While some cities, like Peoria, established ordinances to combat aggressive soliciting, Maricopa County, which is the Sun Cities governing body, has none. But that does not preclude any being established, according to Scott Isham, Marcopa County District 4 supervisor Clint Hickman’s chief of staff.
“Currently there is no P&D regulation regarding aggressive solicitations at Maricopa County,” he stated in an email. “This office hasn’t been made aware of any aggressive behavior before, but we are always willing to work with the Sheriff’s Office to give them the tools they need to insure residents’ safety.”
While there is an uptick in person-to-person confidence crimes, there remain many such crimes committed or attempted over the Internet or by telephone, according to Mr. Nevelle. He related a Sun City West case in which an elderly widow was duped out of $12,000 by following instructions to put money on multiple gift cards and sending them to a scammer.
“These scammers do their homework,” he said. “In the case of impersonating law enforcement, they know officers names and what division they work in.”
Mr. Summers advised that no government agency will try to collect debts or inform residents of outstanding warrants by phone or Internet.
Mr. Nevelle said residents should always call the supposed agency to double check the reality of the contact, or call MCSO.
Scammers, whether electronic or person-to-person, are quick to learn from their failures, according to Mr. Summers.
“They are very adaptable to situations, even in the moment,” he said. “When something stops working, they adjust.”
MCSO officials want to hear from residents who have been approached or fallen victim to a scam or fraud. Mr. Chagolla urged people not to feel afraid or embarrassed to do so.
“What is reported is not all that is out there,” he said. “The more we know, the more we can work on reducing these crimes.”
Mr. Nevelle said all incidents should be reported, including those that happened in the past. In addition to following up in the case, law enforcement will use it as a learning experience, telling them how scammers are adapting.
Mr. Chagolla said those who call in should provide as much information as possible.
“Information is the key,” he said. “We’re not trying to make residents be detectives, but the more information we have the more we can investigate.”
Crime victims are urged to remember as much as possible, including personal descriptions, types and colors of vehicles, a license number if it can be discretely obtained, the type of “sales pitch” used and more.
“Talk to your neighbors about it so they are aware,” he said. “And if neighbors see something out of the ordinary, they should also report that.”
Capt. Paul Chagolla, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office District 3 commander, has a motto, “If you see something, say something.”
To report a crime or attempted crime, call 602-876-1011.