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Police Issue Warning on Phone Scams

Fraud: Con artists posing as law enforcement charities prey on senior citizens and minority communities, officials say.

April 20, 2000|RICHARD WINTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Telephone solicitors persuade thousands of Angelenos annually to contribute to what are depicted as charities helping local law enforcement and dead officers' families. But those dollars often never reach their promised beneficiaries, officials said Wednesday.

Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, along with federal officials investigating fraudulent soliciting, urged the public to be extremely skeptical of any telephone requests for charities supposedly linked to police.

Such scam artists on the phone pose more of a threat to older Americans than do muggers on the street, officials warned at a news conference at Parker Center.

"These people are taking advantage of people who want to do the right thing," said Parks. "Often police and fire departments are used for the basis of many of these charity efforts and unfortunately that money doesn't go to those concerns."

Officials said potential donors to any charity should check out who is really getting the money and whether the organization is legitimate. Charities in Los Angeles are required to have a city-issued information card.

Solicitors for police or fire charities must also have an orange identification card complete with photograph and fingerprint issued by the Police Commission, which requires that they wait 48 hours after a pledge before collecting a donation.

Los Angeles Police Det. Antonio Lee, who annually receives hundreds of reports of false solicitations on behalf of the department, estimates that several million dollars a year are obtained by scam artists. Their operations are usually run from a single room and tend to disappear as law enforcement closes in for arrests, he said.

Officials on Wednesday declined to reveal the names of the bogus charities because several remain under investigation and arrests may be imminent.

Lee said they tend to target the vulnerable--the elderly and those with limited English skills in Latino and Asian communities. "We've had scam artists target members of the minority community, telling them they aren't going to receive police services unless they contribute," he said. The fraudulent fund-raisers hope to exploit newcomers' unfamiliarity with law enforcement practices in the United States, he said.

Other scams, Lee said, include fake police yearbooks and fake departments, such as the make-believe Canoga Police Department. Canoga Park is policed by the LAPD.

Worst of all, Lee said, some scam artists try to exploit a firefighter's or officer's death in the line of duty. "They use the image of the grieving family to make money," he said. Lee said a legitimate charity, the Police Memorial Foundation, helps families of deceased officers, including those killed in the line of duty.

The problem isn't restricted to Los Angeles. Fountain Valley police in Orange County warned last week that telemarketers have been falsely soliciting money on behalf of the department for its widows and orphans.

To make matters worse, Ron Iden, FBI special agent in charge of Los Angeles, said the region is the telemarketing scam capital of the nation. "The bulk of the problem comes from boiler rooms in Southern California," he said, referring to the makeshift offices from which teams of scam artists make calls.

Nationally, telemarketing fraud reaps $40 billion annually for all sorts of fake sales and charity organizations, federal officials estimate.

"This is latest chapter in an ongoing scheme to victimize the most vulnerable people in our community," U.S. Atty. Alejandro N. Mayorkas told the news conference Wednesday.

In the last year, more than a dozen telemarketers in Southern California have been convicted of a variety of scams, including a $50-million scheme that duped 3,000 investors who bought into fake Internet businesses. A Long Beach man sentenced last month to 13 years for fraud continued a telemarketing scam even after his arrest. He harassed his elderly victims so much that one had a heart attack and another suffered a stroke, officials said.

The problem is so pronounced in California that 16 county, state and federal agencies created a "reverse boiler room" two years ago. The Los Angeles-based Telemarketing Victim Call Center, staffed by senior citizen volunteers, calls potential victims using so-called mooch lists of easy targets obtained from busted boiler rooms. The FBI's Iden said the center recently was able to stop an elderly woman from handing over $140,000 to a scam artist.

Those with questions about police or fire charities can call (213) 485-2102. Charities' financial reports are available on the Internet through the state attorney general's office at http://caag.state.ca.us/charities

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