by Rick Callahan, Associated Press
Evelyn Barber walked into the Ocala, Fla., car
dealership to claim the free gift she thought she'd
won. An hour later, the 81-year-old drove away, dazed
and near tears, in a car she didn't want or need.
Barber will always remember Jan. 19 as the day she
fell prey to three fast-talking salesmen who, in a
whirlwind of words, smiles and reassuring pats, sold
her a 1998 Oldsmobile Regency - price tag $26,000.
"They ganged up on me, just badgered me," recalls
Barber, a retired medical secretary. "I really felt
like a lamb in a slaughterhouse, because I was pushed
into something I didn't want. They targeted me because
I was an elderly woman alone, naive and alone."
Like millions of older Americans each year, Barber
fell for a high-pressure pitch - a well-honed,
intimidating act bordering on fraud that exploits some
seniors' trust in others.
Fraud, in its many forms and degrees, is an age-old
problem, but experts say older Americans are being
increasingly targeted by predators who view them as
Telemarketing fraud alone costs Americans an
estimated $40 billion annually - and about 37 percent,
or $15 billion, of that is bilked from people age 50
or older, according to the AARP.
Seniors lose untold billions more through mail
fraud - deceptive mailings with carefully placed small
print - home improvement scams and dozens of other
swindles designed to deceive or mislead.
And with the nation's population of people 65 or
older forecast to grow to 70 million by 2030 - twice
their number in 1998 - the losses are expected to
Scam artists' growing interest in older Americans
arises largely from the fact that, unlike previous
generations, seniors now have nest-eggs thanks to
better retirement plans, said Monroe Friedman, a
professor of psychology at Eastern Michigan University
in Ypsilanti, Mich.
"It used to be that to be old was to be poor, but
older people now typically have greater resources than
their own children and certainly more than the
generation or two before them," said Friedman, who has
studied fraud against seniors for more than a
Aside from their money, there are a number of other
factors that make seniors prime targets for
For one, they are likely to be at home, where they
can be reached by telephone or in person. And often,
they are lonely and more than willing to talk at
length to someone in person or on the phone. To them,
the person pushing this or that scam is a form of
"company," Friedman said.
But it's not just the naive or unsophisticated who
fall prey to scams. Many schemes are so well laid-out
and presented with such attention to detail that there
is no reason to doubt them.
"Sometimes, the victims don't even know what
happened to them until you explain it to them," said
Jean Constantine-Davis, an attorney for AARP
Foundation Litigation, which represents fraud
For Barber, a widow, it started with a deceptive
mailing informing her that she had won a prize and
could collect it at the dealership. It ended in a
deal, financed on the spot, in which she traded in her
perfectly fine 1995 Buick Century for an overpriced
used car she'll be paying $312.23 a month on for five
The deal drained Barber's finances so effectively
she may have to sell her two-bedroom Ocala villa to
pay off the car. Hoping to prevent that, her five
children are pressing for legal action to nullify the
And Barber has yet to see the free gift - five gold
coins - she was promised. "I'm not holding my breath,"
In some cases, an older person's victimization can
consume his life savings and tear the victim's family
apart as relatives try to intervene.
That was the case for Gary A. Sandridge of Upper
Sandusky, Ohio, whose late father fell victim to
misleading mailings and phone calls from telemarketers
who convinced him he had won up to three new cars.
Lorence Sandridge, a retired railroad telegraph
operator, took out a second mortgage on his house to
build a new garage for the cars he was repeatedly
assured by letter and phone he had won.
Over a year's time, he lost more than $40,000
pursuing those cars and virtually worthless prizes
such as baseball caps and vitamins. He became
increasingly isolated from his family, stubbornly
refusing to believe their warnings that he was being
Gary Sandridge wasn't able to intervene to stop the
fraud until his father, a widower who lived alone,
suffered a health crisis that forced him to move to a
Eventually, Sandridge was able to recover about
$13,000 of the $40,000 his father had lost. He used
that to settle another $18,000 in credit card billings
his father had run up in pursuit of his prizes.
Sandridge, whose father died at age 84 a few years
after the scam in the mid-1990s, eventually learned
his father had been suffering from the onset of
dementia. Now, he harbors a deep hatred for the people
who tricked his father.
"These people were just ruthless. They don't care
about the individual or if you get thrown out onto the
street as long as they got their money," Sandridge
But older Americans and prosecutors are taking
steps to combat fraud. Many states are educating
seniors about how to avoid getting scammed.
Florida, home to about 16 million permanent
residents age 65 or older, has one of the oldest
programs, called "Seniors Versus Crime." It educates
and enlists them as watchdogs to keep an eye out for
"They just kind of act as the eyes and ears of
their neighborhood," said Nick Cox, a Florida
assistant attorney general based in Tampa.
Don Ravenna, a retired New Hampshire state trooper
who recently took over as director of Florida's
program, said about 800 volunteers serve as undercover
"Senior Sleuths" who snoop around to uncover fraud.
Some have agreed to become willing pawns to help
police catch scammers.
The sleuths recently helped prosecutors file
racketeering charges against three companies that were
operating a high-pressure scheme to convince seniors
that their water was tainted and that they needed
expensive filtration systems to purify it. Police
secretly videotaped the seniors' in-home meetings with
"We were scamming the scammers," Ravenna said.
Among the sleuths who helped crack the
water-conditioning scam was an 83-year-old widow from
the St. Petersburg area nicknamed "Granny
Super-sleuth," even though she doesn't have any
The woman, who agreed to be interviewed on
condition her name not be used since her undercover
work continues, says she and her silver-haired
comrades have a message for con men.
"These days, you may not know it, but the older
lady listening to your spiel so intently with big eyes
could be a senior sleuth," she said. "We could be