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Elder fraud: One couple's losses and hard lessons

Associated Press Modified: June 25, 2012 at 4:17 am •  Published: June 25, 2012
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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.

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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.

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 and Templeton, respectively an assistant attorney general in North Carolina and 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.

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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."

And once they were marked, the scammers proceeded to "reload" them.

You've won this multimillion-dollar lottery, they'd say. All you need to do is send us the money to cover the taxes, and we'll send you your prize.

So on Dec. 8, 2004, Miriam Parker — then 80 — drove herself to the Wal-Mart down the road to send a MoneyGram to Montreal, Quebec.

Isolation from absent children is often one of the hallmarks in cases like these. But that wasn't so with the Parkers. Sure, Jim had settled in Ohio, and Carole was living in Florida. But Linda and Donna were both just down the road in Cary.

With three kids to raise, Linda wasn't able to look in on their parents all that often. So she and the others counted on Donna, the eldest, to keep an eye on things.

A busy real estate agent and teacher, Donna popped in as often as she could. But she'd always appreciated her parents for not trying to tell her and her siblings how to live their lives, and she did her best to return the courtesy.

In her parents' living room is a plaque that reads, "Mom's 10 Commandments for a Happy Household." No 10 on the list: "If I say do it, don't ask why."

No. 6: "If it rings, answer it."

And so, over a series of calls, Howard Clark — a man with a warm voice who called her "dear" and "sweetheart" — had learned enough personal information about Miriam to convince her that he was the family's ticket to riches.

After her Dec. 8 MoneyGram, other wires followed on Dec. 13 and 16.

On Jan. 12, 2005, she sent a Federal Express package to a "Mr. Stewart" on Papineau Street in Montreal. Inside, as instructed, was a magazine with $12,550 in cash sandwiched between its pages.

The Parkers had quickly become what authorities refer to as "super victims."

Though trusting, Miriam asked Howard repeatedly when they would receive their winnings. One day, he called to say he was on his way to deliver the prize in person — only to call back to say he'd been detained at the border, and that he needed her to send $200 so he could defray things. She sent him the money.

By May 2005, the Parkers had blown through their savings. They had tapped into their home equity line and had maxed out several credit cards. Willing as they still were, the Parkers were running out of things to give.

Unwittingly, their children had contributed to the problem. When Miriam asked Donna for a $7,000 loan, the daughter thought little of it.

Through most of their marriage, Charles Parker had taken care of the couple's finances. But in 1989, shortly after his retirement, he suffered a heart attack. That was followed by colon cancer. As her husband's health declined, Miriam stepped to the fore.

Faced with mounting debt — and clinging to the assurances that a big payday was coming — she was determined to right their financial ship.

That's when she became a "money mule."

___

She can't remember whether it was in a phone call or a note. But Howard told her that she'd been "hired" by the Canadian sweepstakes company.

On May 5, 2005, a package from Bloomingdale, N.J., containing $8,275 in cash arrived at the Parkers' home. It was followed five days later by a FedEx packet with $10,000, then three days after that by an envelope stuffed with $25,000.

In just over one week, Miriam Parker would receive and repackage $60,000 in cash for delivery to Mr. Stewart of Papineau Street, Montreal.

Having the money hopscotch from one victim to another complicates things for would-be investigators.

Sometimes, there would be two stacks of bills, one much thicker than the other, tucked into magazines. The smaller pile was Miriam Parker's "commission."

If someone sent her a check, she was to convert it to cash and send that along, Howard said — and she wasn't to tell her children about their dealings.

But the kids had already become alarmed by changes in their mother's behavior.

During visits, Jim noticed that she would race him to the phone, and then prevent him from listening to the conversations.

She stopped going over to Linda's house to help with the babysitting. And when the couple would go to the mountain house, they'd only stay the day — because Miriam was expecting a call and had to be home to get it.

And then there was the sudden need for loans. When Donna asked what for, her parents were evasive, saying they were helping one of the grandkids with school expenses. By then, they owed her $20,000 and Jim another couple thousand.

Jim sent his mother articles about people who'd been scammed.

When the kids finally persuaded their mother to get a credit report, the news was jaw-dropping. Their thrifty parents were nearly $200,000 in debt.

Miriam Parker insisted that their ship was about to come in, and that she would soon repay all the loans. So Donna gave her a deadline.

In an email to the other siblings, she explained: "I told her that if the money was not there by Wednesday, July 6, the family would be forced to do things we do not look forward to. I also implored her not to give Howard any more money.  She still believes in him."

The money, of course, did not come. It was time to get authorities involved.

Raleigh police told Donna there was nothing they could do unless the perpetrators were local, and so she went to the state Attorney General's Elder Fraud Unit. Around that same time, Donna received a call from the FBI — her parents had popped up on their radar in connection with another case.

It became apparent to authorities that the Parkers weren't truly willing participants in the scam. So they staged the December family intervention.

That kitchen-table gathering ended promisingly, with Miriam assuring Fleming and Evers that she would not forward any more packages. Charles told them he felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted.

Donna allowed herself to hope that the people who'd ripped off her parents would be caught — and that they might even get some of their money back.

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