HOW THE ELDERLY ARE CONNED

The older they are, the easier they fall.

Charming” is the word her many friends used to describe Mrs. Cora Browning.* A small, gray-haired woman in her mid-seventies, she lived in.the comfortable Oak Lawn home she and her husband had shared for many years before Mr. Browning’s death. She still worked in a jewelry store downtown, led an active social life, in short was a respected, dignified member of the community. Then one night two young men rushed up to her as she walked along Cedar Springs, knocked her to the ground and wrenched her purse away. Her head slammed against the sidewalk, and she lay where she fell.

Mrs. Browning recovered, but she was never the same. The blow to her head caused minimal brain damage, not enough to incapacitate her, but enough to cause marked personality changes. She began doing silly things, she chattered constantly, couldn’t remember anything. She had been taking in boarders even before the incident, and one of them, a 30-year-old man, began to exert a Rasputin-like hold over Mrs. Browning. Her friends were concerned, but Mrs. Browning assured them the man was her friend. “He takes care of me,” she said.

The “friend” took over the house and then engineered its sale, helped himself to Mrs. Browning’s prized collection of antiques, disposed of her furs, her jewelry, her expensive clothes. After the house was sold, he moved her to a North Dallas apartment where she spent most of her time in bed in the one room he had designated as hers. He was a big guy who intimidated her old friends so they quit coming to see her. In her old, usually stained and dingy clothes, wearing loads of gaudy costume jewelry, she was a pitiful caricature of the proud, self-sufficient woman she had been. Her only companions were two little dogs who lived in the room with her – and her “friend.”

Finally a brother in Mexia intervened – just as the “friend” was selling Mrs. Browning’s car. In three years, the “friend” had taken Mrs. Browning for something like $80,000.

In Dallas County there are 140,000 people aged 60 and above – 10 percent of the population. They live all over the city, although large concentrations of elderly people live in the older sections of Oak Cliff and East Dallas and in Oak Lawn. In Dallas, as in all large American cities, old people are victimized on a scale too large to ignore – victimized not infrequently in ways more subtle than the blatant crimes of violence that also demand society’s attention. Like Mrs. Browning, many are victimized in ways that are exploitative rather than overtly illegal – which makes them that much more difficult to stop, Mrs. Browning, for instance, absolutely refused to swear out a complaint against her “friend.”

Old people are pursued by fortune hunters eager to separate them from their pension checks. Their mail brings almost daily some new organization or association offering irresistible “bargains,” “discounts,” or “free” gifts and prizes. Those with visual handicaps are cheated while change is made in stores. At the loss of a loved one, first the funeral director and then all kinds of salesmen may exploit them. Cosmetic firms entice them with youth restoratives. Quack doctors, appliances, and drugs give them false hope. Pharmaceutical firms realize high profits from unnecessary sales to old people. And not surprisingly, con artists make old people their prime target.

Not all old people are victims of fraud, of course. But many of them are highly susceptible. Their numbers are increasing, and because of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income, there is more money to be ripped off – even though many of them must struggle on small fixed incomes just to make ends meet. These factors along with their own frailties and vulnerabilities make old people tempting prey.

An old East Texas farmer who moved to the city not long ago put it this way: “A lot of old people are like a poor old cow that gets down out in the pasture. A pack of wolves don’t wait till she’s dead; they’ll start chewin’ on her while she’s down, and she won’t never get up. There’s a lotta wolves in this world preyin’ on old folks too.”

Babe is in his seventies – poor, blind, and scared to death because everyone takes advantage of him. In the backyard of his modest South Dallas home one day last year he stepped on a nail (remember, he’s blind). His foot got infected so he had to go to the hospital. One night he had to go to the bathroom, but no one would come help him so he tried to find it himself. He fell, broke his hip, and instead of a few days in the hospital, he ended up staying five weeks.

For 40 years Babe had been paying five or six dollars a week on a hospitalization and disability policy. He filed a claim for five weeks in the hospital and three weeks disability at home, 80 dollars in all. When after several weeks he still hadn’t gotten his money, he contacted the company – and was told the money had already been paid. Babe told the insurance company representative he never got the money.

According to company records, the insurance agent paid the eighty dollars to a “housekeeper” who marked the check with an X. Who the housekeeper was, no one knows. The agent who made the payment was no longer with the company, nor was any date entered to indicate when the payment was made. All anyone could say for sure was that an old blind man was cheated out of a sum of money that was rightfully his.

Most old people in Babe’s situation would have accepted the insurance company ruling. Who am I to challenge authority, they reason – if indeed they even comprehend the decision. Fortunately, Babe’s case came to the attention of the Older Americans Legal Action Center here in Dallas, and OALAC was able to persuade the company to pay. So one year after his hospital stay, Babe collected his $80, minus the $16 it cost to file a claim. However, his insurance was cancelled, because he was by then over 70.

OALAC, with a staff of two attorneys and two senior citizen paralegals, daily encounters old people with problems similar to Babe’s. Some of the situations are so pathetically absurd, they almost defy belief. Lottie’s story, for example.

At 86, Lottie is a tiny, energetic woman who laughs a lot and loves people. She lives in a small frame house in East Dallas, a house with several additions Lottie had built over the years. She’s been in the neighborhood practically all her life; she knows everybody, and everybody knows her.

One day Lottie met a 61 -year-old prostitute who hung out in the neighborhood joints and dives. Too old to ply her trade and too young to collect social security, the woman aroused Lottie’s sympathy. Lottie got it in her head to reform her so she invited her to move in. “I got her to watchin’ religious shows and Lawrence Welk,” Lottie recalls.

It wasn’t long before Lottie realized she had made a mistake. The woman transformed the room where she stayed into a foul, bug-infested den. She was an alcoholic, she came in at all hours, and Lottie couldn’t sleep. One night the woman’s 20-year-old boyfriend beat Lottie and took the Social Security money she was saving to pay the woman’s DWI fines.

For two years Lottie lived in fear of the woman and her friends. Finally she too contacted the Older Americans Legal Action Center, and an OALAC representative was able to evict the woman as well as find a place for Lottie to stay until she could safely return home. When Lottie got back home, she insisted on cleaning the filthy room herself, without anyone’s help. “You know,” she told her friends, “I think we saved that woman’s life.”

That kind of leech-like exploitation of old people seems disturbingly prevalent. Widowhood, the death of friends, poverty, physical and mental impairment, and transportation difficulties contribute to loneliness and isolation; so, all too often, a desperate longing for companionship and a need for someone to trust overcomes caution and healthy skepticism.

It happened to Josh after his wife died. A dapper, white-haired gentleman who had been a successful Dallas businessman, he was 80 years old and lonely. When a young community service worker who had helped Josh on occasion offered to move in and look after him, Josh was delighted – “I’ve always been young-thinking anyway,” he told friends.

After the young man moved in – he was no longer with the social service a-gency – his motley assortment of friends began drifting in and out. They started writing checks on an account that belonged to Josh’s late wife. The young man and his 19-year-old girl friend bought a Ford Pinto with money from the account. They would escort Josh to the neighborhood Tom Thumb where he would cash checks for them. They ran up a huge bill at Sears. They sold off his antiques. The girl went to South Carolina for several weeks where she made long distance phone calls all over the country and charged them to Josh’s phone.

The pathetic thing about Josh’s situation is that these young leeches were the only people who took any interest in the old man. (Josh especially liked going to rock concerts with them.) Eventually, a nephew who lived in Maryland found out what was happening and contacted the Aging Information Office here in Dallas. One of the agency’s workers was able to scare the young people out, take charge of Josh’s tangled financial affairs, and put him in touch with a senior citizen center near his home sponsored by the Dallas County Nutrition Program. The center provided Josh a much-needed social outlet with people his own age. He was doing well until he suffered a stroke earlier this year. Josh now lives in a nursing home.

Carolyn Thornton of the Dallas County Aging Information Office has worked with Josh for the last couple of years. “I have no doubt in my mind,” she says, “that there are many old persons living under the same condition this man was living under and are afraid to report it to authorities.”

Similar needs and vulnerabilities make many older people ready victims for exploiters of a more professional bent. Sergeant Les Beilharz, General Assignments Section of the Dallas Police Department, sees it almost every day – an old person who has fallen prey to crafty efforts to siphon money out of an account in banks, credit unions, or savings and loan associations. Usually the old person has been victimized by some form of confidence game practiced by con-artists quick to exploit every weakness. “These people are experts,” Sgt. Beilharz points out. “Why do you think they’re called artists?”

A perennial favorite of the professional con artist is the “bank examiner” swindle. The crook calls a widow, for instance, and tells her that shortages have been found in a number of accounts, and that the bank wants her help – will even pay a substantial bonus for her help – in uncovering the dishonest employee. She need only withdraw a large sum of money and wait at home for a further call. Then the “examiner” calls and tells her a “bank messenger” will pick up the money as “evidence” and give her a receipt. Of course, she never sees her money again. It happens all the time.

Edgar Halleck is a prosperous retired drug store owner living in Oak Cliff. At 70, still of sound mind and body, he enjoys his golf and his grandchildren. Recently he received a call from a “bank examiner” requesting that he withdraw exactly $5,800 from his checking account to help the bank uncover a suspected dishonest employee. (He had $16,000 in the account.) Mr. Halleck went to the bank that afternoon, withdrew the specified amount, and, suddenly feeling uneasy carrying so much cash, he asked a uniformed bank guard to walk with him to his car.

Instead of going home, he drove to his sister’s house where it finally dawned on him that he had been the potential victim of a swindle. Sergeant Beilharz theorizes the operators aborted the scheme when one of them saw Mr. Halleck come out of the bank with the guard.

Mrs. Phoebe Cooperman, a retired DISD supervisor living in a luxury highrise a-partment, was not so fortunate. She received a call from a “bank examiner” requesting that she withdraw all the money in her account. She did as requested. When she got home from the bank, her phone was ringing. It was the “examiner,” of course, asking if all had gone as planned. While they talked, her doorbell rang. “Oh that must be our bank messenger,” the smooth-voiced man on the phone said. “Go ahead and give him the money, he’ll give you a receipt, and he’ll return the money to the bank. You certainly don’t want that amount of money lying around your apartment.’’ At the door was a nondescript man in a neat guard’s uniform, cap worn low over his eyes. He courteously touched his cap, handed Mrs. Cooperman a receipt, and Mrs. Cooperman handed him $11,200 in cash.

Why are the elderly so susceptible to fraud? Robert Butler, a gerontologist and psychiatrist, points out in his book, Why Survive? Being Old in America, “It is not age per se. People do not automatically lose their intelligence and judgment as they grow older. We are all susceptible to the personality of others, the factor of charisma . . . But a variety of factors can contribute toward making an older person especially vulnerable: current medical status, the presence of organic brain damage, loneliness, grief and depression, the fear of aging and death, pain and anxiety, educational level, personality, cultural characteristics, and poverty.”

The bank examiner scam, Sgt. Beilharz believes, is particularly effective because older people are often uneasy about banks. “Most of them lived through the Depression when the banks all folded,” he points out, “so they don’t trust the banks. If there’s any hint of something wrong, they’ll go withdraw their money. I had a president of an East Dallas bank tell me he has old people come in all the time and want to see their money. He says he takes them over to the vault, opens it up, and says ’There it is.”’

Another popular swindle old people often fall victim to is the centuries-old bane of the gullible – the pigeon drop. The pigeon drop, with thousands of variations, is the classic “found money” scheme. (The opening scene in the movie The Sting features a .pigeon drop.) The victim is approached by one operator who initiates a conversation and gains the person’s confidence – a pleasant-looking young woman might come to the door asking for directions to some address in the neighborhood, for instance. A second operator just happens to appear with the “found money” – the “mish roll,” in police parlance. Often the money is made | to appear tainted – it comes supposedly from gambling or some other illicit activity – so the “real owner” is not likely to go to the police looking for it.

The idea is that the three people, including the victim, can share this illegal money; it’s finders-keepers. The next step is to consult some so-called authority, a lawyer or businessman known by one of the operators. This step is designed to heighten the victim’s greed as he watches the money leave the scene and wonders if he will ever see it again.

The money, of course, reappears, along with the welcome news that the lawyer or businessman consulted assures the finders that they can rightfully divide the money among themselves. He also advises each one of them to put up some of his own money “to show your good faith, to prove your honesty.”

The operators accompany the victim to his bank where he withdraws a specified amount. The money goes into an envelope, the operators switch the money package for one containing cut newspaper, and the victim is left “holding the bag.”

Could anyone be so gullible? Sgt.Beil-harz answered that question with a grim laugh and page after page of records listing recent pigeon-drop victims in Dallas – many of them women in their sixties or older who in some cases lost nearly all they had. He went down the list calling off amounts lost – $4,000; $5,000; $8,000; $9,000. “Arlington had one where a woman not too long ago lost $20,000,” he said. “A woman in Euless lost $15,000.”

An 82-year-old Dallas woman who recently got involved in a pigeon drop said she had traveled all over the world every yearand had never been cheated. “I trust people,” she said. She lost $1,500.

And there are other schemes – it has been estimated that there are in existence more than 800 different schemes to bilk, defraud, or otherwise illegally separate a person, all too often an old person, from his money. A card-game variation of the pigeon drop called Three-Card Monty is popular as are such schemes as the fake contest, miracle cures, fake laboratory tests, retirement estates, and various work-at-home offers. One newspaper ad aimed at people seeking additional income by working at home drew more than 200,000 inquiries. To qualify, persons were to send in a $2 registration fee and a small sewing sample to demonstrate their skill. No one qualified, of course, and none of the money was returned.

A particularly insidious type of fraud worked on old people involves home-repair swindles. Sgt.Beilharzexplainshowit works: “These home-repair guys ride a-round in old parts of town, in East Dallas or Oak Cliff. They know that plenty of old people will live alone until they die because they’re very independent, and they’re not gonna let anybody stick ’em in a rest home. Their home is their most prized possesion, and they’ll spend anything to fix it up.

“Two or three of them work together. One stays with the victim while the other two go lie around under the house and smoke a cigarette. They’ll bang on a pipe or two every once in a while. Or maybe they’ll carry some two-by-fours through the house to make the victim think they’re putting new beams in the attic or they’ll stack some concrete blocks under the house close enough to the opening so the victim can see them. They’ll tell him they’ve put blocks all under the house to shore up the-foundation. One woman who’s in her seventies lost $18,000 in a year’s time. We had even arrested people, but she fell for it three or four times. And it was the same gang each time.”

Another woman in East Dallas lost $28,000 to home repair swindlers. “We made several arrests on that one too,” Beilharz said. “Some from out of state. They’d come all the way to Dallas just to get a bite.”

A notorious family of Dallas home-repair swindlers has perfected a particularly profitable scheme for bilking older people. After convincing the victim his home is in dire need of repair, the repairmen work around the house for perhaps half a day. When they’re finished, they escort the victim to the bank so he can withdraw enough cash to pay them – $4,000 in a recent incident. Perhaps that evening, one of the repairmen will call on the victim to explain that he had been going over the work done that day, and that the victim has actually paid too much. The bill should have been $3,800 instead of $4,000. The only problem, he explains, is that he already sent the $4,000 to the home office in another city. Perhaps the easiest thing to do, he suggests, would be to go to the bank first thing in the morning, withdraw the $3,800 and the repairman will give the victim a check for $4,000. The check bounces, but some days later another of the swindlers posing as a bondsman goes to the victim’s house and tells him that he represents a respected firm, and that the victim can get his money back, by putting up an additional $3,800. Incredibly, the victim usually pays the money.

When old people are vicitimized by such frauds, the tragedy involves more than just money. “Within a month or two,” Sgt. Beilharz points out, “these people are going to worry themselves into a stroke or a heart attack. And in six months, there’s a good chance they’ll worry themselves into the grave. We check the obituary columns every day, and hardly a week goes by that we don’t see where some old person we’d worked with a few months before has died.”

Often, however, old people are victimized or exploited in much less dramatic ways; indeed the more insidious types of exploitation complicate the task of discriminating between legitimate efforts to help and overt exploitation. Caroline Blackburn, director of the Aging Information Office of the Community Council Information and Referral Service, is looking for solutions to this problem. “We see all of a sudden,” she says, “that helping senior citizens has become the fashionable thing to do, and if you can make a little money off of them too, well then why not? But many old people have so little money that when they spend it for something that has no-value, then it really hurts them.”

A case involving an outfit calling itself the National Associated Senior Society Incorporated illustrates the problem. Doing business as the Association of Senior Citizens, the name could easily be confused with the name of a legitimate organization, the Association of Senior Citizen Groups of Metropolitan Dallas.

According to a brochure put out earlier this year, the Association of Senior Citizens was organized to provide free sickroom equipment to senior citizens in the Dallas area, to set up an emergency fund to assist senior citizens and needy families under crisis circumstances, and to operate a mini-bus service for trips to the doctor.

The organization planned to raise money by staging a country-and-westem concert for which they were soliciting donations throughout the Dallas area. Thirty thousand dollars was to be raised, of which only nine thousand would go to the cause. That bit of information, plus the discovery that the Association of Senior Citizens owned not one piece of home health-care equipment or mini-buses or anything else and that its founder had tried a similar scheme to benefit orphans several years earlier, promptly put the fledgling organization out of business.

But the Association of Senior Citizens was only one of a bewildering array of organizations, associations, clubs, discount groups, and cooperatives purporting to offer goods and services benefitting older people. Many of them are similar both in name and stated function to the respected national group, the American Association of Retired Persons. And many undoubtedly provide legitimate services; how to determine those that don’t is the problem.

The Senior Citizens Discount Club, for instance, bills itself as a national organization providing people aged 60 and over a catalog of businesses in Dallas and around the country which offer senior citizen discounts. Membership is $10 a year.

The American Senior Citizens Association provides a weekly newspaper designed to keep senior citizens abreast of important legislation, discount plans, and other items of interest to older people. Lifetime membership is four dollars.

Senior Citizens Association Incorporated is a Dallas-based organization affiliated with Crest Pharmacy of Garland offering discounts on drugs and free delivery. Membership is $10 a year for a single person, $15 for a couple.

Mature Texans – not to be confused with Mature Temps, a parttime-employ-ment service run by AARP – proposes to offer on a regular basis a list of wholesale prices to people from 50 to 80. Charter memberships go for $7 although the organization, according to its founder, needs to raise $2,000 to begin operations.

“What we do here at the Aging Information Office,” Caroline Blackburn says, “is sift through and pin people down when they call and solicit money. We want to find out the same thing an older person who’s approached about an organization should be able to find out – ’What do I get and when do I get it?’

“Old people have to be so blasted careful because everyone of these groups sound like they’re going to offer some kind of ultimate salvation. And none of them have names that describe what they do. I just talked to a lady on the phone who said she had gone to a pharmacy that advertised a senior citizen discount, and the pharmacy sold her thirty pills instead of the usual fifty. She said to me, ’You know, a lot of old people wouldn’t notice that.’”

The woman is right, of course – a lot of old people wouldn’t notice – and that is why exploitation is frequent. Much can be done, however, to protect the elderly against fraud and exploitation. In Dallas the Older Americans Legal Action Center (OALAC) provides assistance with wills, contracts, receipt of benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, and provides lectures on consumer fraud, Social Security, and other issues affecting old people. The Senior Safety Committee, organized three years ago by the Dallas Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, tries to bring to the attention of older people the fact that they may be victims of crime and fraud and offers suggestions on what they can do to protect themselves. The committee also grapples with the difficult question of legal guardianship for the elderly – when it is necessary and when it isn’t. Sergeant Beilharz and his colleagues in the General Services Section of the Dallas Police Department make frequent presentations to senior citizen groups around the city on the problems of fraud and exploitation.

Public education campaigns, professionalcounseling, more effective legal services,stronger consumer protection laws – theyare all necessary to stop fraudulent practices directed against the elderly. But theyare not enough. An even more basic needis a change in attitude, for all of the schemesdesigned to victimize the old, in RobertButler’s words, “occur in a general culturalframework that denigrates older people.”Until people who have lived long can alsocontinue living with dignity and purpose,then victimization and exploitation of theold will likely continue.

IF YOU THINK AN OLDER FRIEND OR RELATIVE IS BEING VICTIMIZED, HERE’S WHAT TO DO:



Pigeon drops, the “bank examiner” swindle, home-repair rip-offs, and other types of criminal fraud should, of course, be handled by the police. Contact:



Dallas Police Department General Assignments Section 748-971 l,ext. 571



Not all types of victimization are criminal in nature, however. For questions concerning consumer fraud or other types of exploitation that may or may not be illegal or to find whether a service offered to older people in Dallas is legitimate, contact:



The Aging Information Office of the Community Council Information and Referral Service

212 N. St. Paul

Dallas, Texas 741-5244

The Aging Information Office provides comprehensive information about community services available to older people and their families, and it assists other agencies in coordinating services in multi-problem situations.



If an older person needs legal assistance, contact:

Older Americans Legal Action Center 912 Commerce St., Room 502 Dallas, Texas 75202 742-1631



OALAC provides assistance with wills, contracts, receipt of benefits, Medicare and Medicaid. The agency also provides lectures on consumer fraud, Social Security, and other issues important to older people. The Area Agency on Aging has contracted with Dallas Legal Services to provide this service.

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