The Senior Scam
I never realized the extent and ease with which people prey on the elderly until a recent trip to celebrate my dad’s 90thbirthday in the holy grail of senior abuse, Florida. My parents are fiercely protective of their independence, living alone in a house, resisting assistance of any kind. This despite the fact that my father is frail, a result of some carcinoma 20 years ago that was so deep the doctors severed a nerve when they removed it from his cheek. It has made chewing and swallowing a challenge ever since. And his synapses don’t fire the way they used to.
Thankfully he does get some help with his finances, and the day I arrived his accountant called me to report some suspicious invoices from a roofing company. They had somehow managed to collect over $7,500 from my Dad over three different visits, for gutter and dryer vent cleaning. I was planning to examine the invoices in due time, but as fate would have it, the scammers showed up the next morning, unannounced and uninvited. Seems they found a golden goose and were hitting it hard.
When I came outside, one guy was already on the roof, pulling screens from the gutter, while the other sat in a plain, unmarked van, his arm dangling a lit cigarette. His name was Reinaldo. He jumped out of the vehicle and promptly presented me a new bill, for $500. For an hour of work pulling perfectly adequate screens from a gutter that he said were worn out. I could feel my head exploding.
I went inside, grabbed the other three bills, and began grilling him on the exact nature of the work. Reinaldo had a thick New York accent; he was gaunt, with sunken eyes and thinning, greasy hair. But the thing that really got me was an arm full of aspirin-sized, festering holes – two on his wrist, and another on his forearm. My mind did a quick calculation of what might have caused them. None of them appealing.
Reinaldo gave me some ridiculous double talk about cleaning the gutters, then sending another guy in to do the dryer vents (“I don’t do no vents”), as if that’s a specialized field. One of the bills was $1,500, for a vent cleaning package of five, which made me wonder how many times in my life I or anyone I knew cleaned their dryer vents. I proceeded to call the property manager, Dennis. “Did you authorize this clown show?” I asked. He was aghast, and within 15 minutes came roaring up the driveway, blocking the van, with two security guards in tow. SWAT had arrived.
Dennis takes care of all my parents’ maintenance needs, and gets a cut from every sub. This was his honey pot, and he’d be damned if anyone else moved in on it. “How did you get to Mr. Fried? Who sent you?” he asked.
Reinaldo got his boss on the phone, Ron (another wise guy from New York). It felt like Ron had rehearsed this speech many times. “I knew when I met Mr. Fried I should have spoken with his son, or somebody to explain the work. I asked him 40 times if we should, and he said no.”
Question was, how did he even get to my Dad, who lives in a gated community? Turns out he had a gate card, given to trusted service people. This was his meal ticket, an easy way to go door-to-door, convincing confused and gullible elders it was time for service. Once they had a mark, it was game on.
My dad doesn’t remember how he met them and even why they were there. But he signed their invoices and paid. Like many seniors, he doesn’t like to cop to memory loss. Pride can be an expensive vanity.
But we had Ron on the ropes. While bringing criminal charges would be difficult (he did some work, the value of which could be disputed), he didn’t want to lose his coveted gate card. He all-too-quickly offered to refund the entire sum. We accepted, and the next day he arrived with a check. As for the gate card, it got pulled. That was good news for the neighbors, but did nothing to stop Ron’s predatory scams on others. I checked Yelp, my only consumer recourse, and there was no listing.
Florida is particularly fertile ground for small-time hoods to exploit retirees. But I wondered how much it happens in Laguna, where people are old and rich, a tantalizing combination. It amplifies a malaise in our capitalistic society to leave our parents behind in the pursuit of career or lifestyle. I’ve pondered many times moving to Florida to take care of them. But then I look around and imagine myself in the flattest state in the union, surrounded by addled seniors, rednecks, and Trumpers. And I come to my senses. I can only do what I can do. From California.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX 93.5, and can be reached [email protected]