[The following was submitted by Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.]
There is a knock at the door. A young man explains that he and his uncle just finished paving a driveway down the street. They notice that your driveway is in disrepair and he offers to fix it with his left over material. He says it will cost about $300. After doing the work, he comes back. It seems that your driveway was worse off than expected and involved more work. So now it costs $1,500. Now what?
Often, this scenario and others like it are treated as civil complaints when in fact, this is a crime perpetrated by a member of an organized criminal enterprise. These thieves, who tend to target the elderly, are skilled at tricking people into giving them their hard-earned money. They are so good at it that some people do not even realize that they have been robbed. By the time they do, it is too late to track them down. They are a moving target, going from one jurisdiction to another, counting on the fact that most people won’t report it out of embarrassment. In the few instances they actually do get caught, they will gladly pay the money back since it is a small cost of doing business and they avoid jail time.
In establishing the Essex Anti-Scam Task Force, it is my hope to change that. Our greatest weapon in fighting this type of criminal is information. The Task Force creates a repository for law enforcement agencies to report and access current scams so that information is shared across jurisdictional lines. This will enable us to build cases against these criminals.
However, we must continue to educate citizens on how to avoid falling victim to a scammer as well as encourage people who do to report it as soon as possible.
I recently hosted a seminar for local law enforcement to encourage information sharing and improve our collective understanding of how these thieves work and how we can successfully identify, apprehend and prosecute them.
There are as many scams as there are thieves. The service offered tends to be one that is not well regulated such as driveway repair, chimney or roof inspection. The initial contact may take place at the front door, over the phone or by email. No matter how the deal goes down, it is the same game with the same sad result: a senior citizen cheated out of their future nest egg with very little recourse.
I ask everyone reading this to take some steps to stop these criminals.
If you have an older relative or friend who lives alone, speak to them about how to handle unsolicited contact at the front door, over the phone or via email. Help them develop a script that they are comfortable with to say no. Register them for the Do Not Call list and remind them not to do with business with people who solicit door-to-door or over the phone and to always wait 24 hours before signing or agreeing to anything. Encourage them to notify you or the police when something is suspicious.
If your neighbor is elderly, become involved. If you see someone doing work on the roof or in the driveway, ask some questions, observe their vehicles, let them know you are watching.
If you are elderly and living alone, always remember that any reputable business will put their offer in writing and be willing to give you time to make up your mind. Also a bank or government agency will never call you to verify personal information over the phone. It is acceptable to hang up the phone or close the door if you feel pressured.