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Elder fraud: One couple's losses and hard lessons
Monday - 6/25/2012, 5:09am 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 been powerless to open their parents' eyes. Maybe, Donna thought, 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.
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 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.
With the couple's permission, Evers installed a "mooch line" on the kitchen phone so they could capture incoming calls. The Parkers 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.
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. After Charles served in the Navy in World War II, 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 other teaching stints, 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, later converting the garage into a classroom for Miriam's special-needs pupils.
Through hard work and thrift, the Parkers were able to send all four children to college and pay off their home. 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 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.
Using the latest technologies, "these criminals need not defraud their victims face-to-face," David Kirkman and Virginia H. Templeton wrote in a 2007 article for the journal Alzheimer's Care Today. From far away, "they can identify vulnerable seniors, contact them, and induce them to part with their savings."
A slowing down of brain function comes with normal aging, they noted. The elderly are susceptible to errors in judgment, particularly in situations where a snap decision is required _ such as during a telemarketing call.
"Experience teaches us that those with mild dementia tend to be the most vulnerable," wrote Kirkman, an assistant attorney general in North Carolina, and Templeton, a gerontologist.
The Mayo Clinic defines "mild cognitive impairment" as an "intermediate stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more pronounced decline of dementia."
The basis for a diagnosis in many cases: falling victim to repeated scams.
No one can say exactly how the trouble began in the Parkers' case.
They might have made a small donation to some charity or responded to a sweepstakes letter they got in the mail. Somehow, the couple ended up on what people in the industry call the "sucker list."