In its first year of operation, the Cape Coral office of a state-sponsored program committed to reducing the victimization of senior citizens recovered nearly $30,000 in cash and services for local residents.
The Florida Attorney General's Office initiated the Senior vs. Crime Project in 1989, with the aim of educating the elderly to prevent them from becoming intentional or unintentional victims of con artists or honest businesses and with the hope of recouping some of or all of the losses sustained by victims.
Today, the Senior vs. Crime Project operates out of offices throughout the state with the help of volunteers. An office was officially opened at the Cape Coral Police Department in October.
"We handle all of Lee County, all of Collier and half of Charlotte," office manager Pat Koelber said.
Before the grand opening, local volunteers were taking cases as early as August 2012. Currently, the Cape office staffs about a dozen volunteers. As of last month, it had handled a total of 92 cases.
"Some of them are unfounded. They (the alleged victims) really don't have a complaint," she said. "Some we have to turn over to law enforcement."
In the past year, about 14 cases have been turned over to another agency or an attorney.
"A lot times, we're just a shoulder - there to listen to their story," Koelber said.
Approximately one-third of the cases have resulted in a positive resolution.
As of August, the Cape office had recovered about $29,565 for some local victims. Of that total, an estimated $26,282 was monetary reimbursements, while the remainder was "actual work" or services.
"We got the contractor to come back in to finish the job he was hired for and paid for," she said, offering an example. "It would be something that would have been started but not had been finished."
Senior citizens are targeted because they are usually retired, a homeowner and have an income.
"They know most of us are alone and we take people for their word," Koelber said.
In one case, a man sold his residence and moved into a retirement home due to health issues. The company in charge of his former residence's security system claimed that he was still responsible for paying for the service and continued to bill him, despite the fact the man was no longer the owner.
Senior vs. Crime was able to put a stop to the situation and the harassment.
"We had a couple of instances with car dealers selling cars to people with Alzheimer's," she said.
In another case, a consignment shop sold merchandise for the victim. The shop stated that it sent the victim a check for the items, but the check never arrived and the shop had no proof it was sent. When the shop refused to reimburse the victim for the merchandise sold, the person called the Cape office.
Koelber explained that the program was able to get the victim their money.
"Our biggest complaints have been against air conditioner companies," she said.
For people planning to have work done on their home, the Cape office offered the following tips:
n Get three written estimates first.
n Never provide a cash deposit.
n Do not pay upfront for any work.
"If you don't know anything about a company, we can look it up for you," Koelber said.
Citizens can also check the Better Business Bureau online at: www.bbb.org.
Over the past year, the volunteers have spoken at various events and before different groups, such as TOPS, the St. Andrew's men's group and the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.
"We have done one or two of your manufactured home parks," Koelber said.
The material covered includes popular scams, like e-mail and sweepstakes schemes, along with unclaimed property scams, health care fraud and identification theft. The newest scheme is the use of online dating sites to court victims, before eventually asking them for a large amount of money.
In the "sweetheart" scam, the average person is taken for an estimated $10,000.
Red flags for residents should be if they are asked for their personal information or credit card information, or if they are asked to pay for something upfront that they did not request.
"Scams are even coming now in text messages on people's phones," she said.
Outside of the topic of scams, volunteers recommend other tips for seniors, to include signing up for the Do Not Call Registry, listening to callers on an answering machine, never opening their front door for strangers and never letting strangers in for a home inspection if the inspection was not asked for.
Answering the door with a phone in hand is also suggested.
"We try to alert them to all the different scams and the different things," Koelber said.
The services and assistance provided by the Senior vs. Crime Project are free. Residents can bring in documentation related to their reported scam or unfair business deal and have their case reviewed.
Citizens can also e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and provide a narrative of the incident.
The Cape office is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The program is always looking for new volunteers.
Over the past year, the Cape office has recorded 2,089 volunteer hours.
"We have people that were in banking. We have people in real estate," Koelber said.
"We're always looking for somebody that's got a field that can help us," she said.
Volunteers talk to victims, conduct research and talk to all parties involved.
"We try to be a mediator," Koelber said. "Sometimes you have to listen to both sides of the story."
The Cape Coral Police Department is at 1100 Cultural Park Blvd.
For more information, call (239) 574-0643 or visit online at: www.seniorsvscrime.com.