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Victims Vulnerable to Con Artists' Charms

July 07, 2002|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Authorities battling telemarketing fraud not only must contend with nimble con men but with the self-destructive impulses of many elderly victims, whose loneliness and yearning for friendship and trust can make them their own worst enemies.

Some victims are so thoroughly taken in that they have trouble believing they've been had, even when the evidence is overwhelming. On occasion, authorities who have tried to save victims with good advice--or even by returning their checks--have had the surreal experience of being told to buzz off.

"Sometimes they go, 'Holy cow, thanks for telling me,' " said Sgt. Barry R. Baxter of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who heads Project Emptor, a Vancouver-area task force battling cross-border fraud. "And sometimes they go, "Thank you, sergeant, for calling me, but I have a real good feeling about this one.... Please let my money go through.' "

Baxter recalled the time he was unable to persuade a California woman to take back $8,500 that had been intercepted by customs officers on its way to a Vancouver phone fraud ring. Baxter called in reinforcements--an FBI agent on the task force who finally persuaded the skeptical victim to take back her check. But Baxter said it would not surprise him if the money was "turned around and sent right back up here."

Such episodes partly reflect the persuasive skills of the con men, who practice being beguilingly friendly and believable in a way that law enforcement officers never do.

These are "some of the most despicable criminals I have ever run across," said Mark Beauchamp, a special agent with the U.S. Customs Service who has investigated cross-border frauds. But "they're excellent at what they're doing."

For some victims, the telemarketers become emotional stand-ins for the children who are always too busy, the grandkids they never see.

And the scammers have nothing but time to talk--and to probe for an emotional connection. If the elderly person is devoutly religious, the telemarketer just happens to be a big churchgoer, too.

If the victim is ill or grieving the death of a loved one, by coincidence the telemarketer recently suffered the same kind of loss.

Though it might be assumed that the victims are unsophisticated, some of them are retired physicians, professors and businesspeople.

If you are losing tens of thousands of dollars to telemarketers, "you're a person of means, and probably education," said Laureen France, an investigator with the Federal Trade Commission in Seattle. People would like "to believe that these [victims] are not us," France said. But "this is us in 20 years."

Consumer advocates have stepped up efforts to educate the elderly--imploring them to hang up on telemarketers, and never to send money to anyone offering money in return.

But Jay Dalton, a San Fernando Valley man whose mother was a victim, said getting children to keep an eye on their elderly parents is more important still.

"These cons work because the cons are calling the [victims] more than the family ... [and are] treating [the victim] with such kindness on the phone that they build a rapport," Dalton said.

"You don't have to open the eyes of the victims," he said. "You have to open the eyes of the families."

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