Elder fraud: One couple's losses and hard lessons

Monday - 6/25/2012, 5:11am EDT

By ALLEN G. BREED
AP National Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - With their elderly parents seated across the octagonal oak table, Donna and Jim Parker were back in the kitchen they knew so well _ the hutch along one wall crammed with plates, bells and salt-and-pepper shakers picked up during family trips; at the table's corner, the spindly wooden high chair where a 7-year-old Jim had tearfully confessed to setting a neighbor's woods ablaze.

It was Christmastime, but this was no holiday gathering. Now, it was the parents who were in deep trouble, and this was an intervention.

For the past year, Charles and Miriam Parker, both 81, had been in the thrall of an international sweepstakes scam. The retired educators, with a half-dozen college degrees between them, had lost tens of thousands of dollars.

But money wasn't just leaving the Parker house. Strangely, large sums were now coming in, too.

Their four children were worried, but had so far been powerless to open their parents' eyes. If they wouldn't listen to their kids, Donna thought, maybe they'd listen to people with badges.

And so, joining them at the family table that late-December day in 2005 were Special Agent Joan Fleming of the FBI and David Evers, an investigator from the North Carolina attorney general's telemarketing fraud unit.

At first, the Parkers were angry at what they considered their children's betrayal. They had always been wary of the government, particularly the Internal Revenue Service. "Well, they're just after your money," Charles Parker would say.

But they'd politely invited the two officers in. 

The home was littered with sweepstakes mailers and "claim" forms, the cupboards bare of just about everything but canned soup, bread and crackers. Charles Parker acknowledged to their guests that he'd lost a lot of money, but expressed confidence that he and his wife would eventually succeed if they just kept "investing."

Evers and Fleming showed the couple a video of other elderly scam victims, then played a taped interview of a former con man describing how he operated. Charles was alarmed by what he was seeing and hearing, but his wife seemed to be barely paying attention.

The officers explained they were there to ask for the Parkers' help in catching these predators. With their permission, Evers installed a "mooch line" on the kitchen phone so they could capture incoming calls.

Charles, a war veteran, was tickled at the notion of being part of an undercover operation. He and his wife pledged their cooperation.

After gathering up some of the mailings for evidence, the officers left, encouraged by what seemed a few hours well spent.

But in the coming months and years, things would only get worse for the Parker family _ much worse.

___

It's important to note at the outset that the Parkers were hardly unsophisticated people, the type to be easily fooled. Born in 1924, Charles Alexander Parker and Miriam Wilkinson were high school sweethearts back in Pitman, N.J. Charles served on a Navy destroyer escort off north Africa in World War II, after which they married and embarked on a life of learning and teaching.

Charles earned a doctorate in speech communications, and Miriam received a pair of master's degrees, one in special education. Along the way, Miriam gave birth to four children: Donna, Jim, Linda and Carole.

After teaching stints around the South, Charles Parker took a position in the English department at North Carolina State in Raleigh, from which he would eventually retire. In 1966, the couple built a split-level home in a neighborhood with streets named for flowering trees, and later converted the garage into a classroom for Miriam's special-needs pupils.

Through their hard work and thrift, the Parkers were able to send all four children to college and pay off their home. They bought a piece of land in the North Carolina mountains and put a camping trailer on it, eventually replacing it with a house.

Between their savings and Charles' pension, they were looking at a comfortable retirement.

Then the conman entered their lives.

___

Older Americans lose $2.9 billion a year to fraud, according to a study conducted last year by the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. Most victims are between 80 and 89, and most are women.

"Elder financial abuse is becoming the crime of the 21st century," Denise Voigt Crawford, past president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, said when the report was released.

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