Con artists hit the road to prey on old
May 23, 1990
The criminals we worry most about are crack dealers, armed robbers, rapists and murderers. This fear comes from living in urban America.
There's another kind of crook who is seldom caught, rarely prosecuted and almost never jailed. Yet his brand of crime is particularly cruel and predatory because it targets the elderly who live alone.
Every year gypsy criminals come scouting for victims in the Sun Belt. They knock on doors and offer bargain home repairs, roof sealing and driveway paving—work that's invariably shoddy and overpriced.
A more sinister ruse is the unarmed "home invasion"—one thief talks his way into a house and distracts the owner, while partners loot the place. In this way, hundreds of old people have lost all their money. In one month, 26 such gypsy burglaries were documented in the city of Miami; frequently the thieves pose as utility workers from FPL or Southern Bell.
Because court systems are already clogged, the traveling con artist is a low priority. The crime networks, though, are vast and well-organized webs that take in millions—and are more difficult to penetrate than the Mafia.
This week the Florida attorney general's office is holding a police seminar on Eastern European and American gypsies, as well as the "travelers," vagabond thieves of Irish, Scottish and English descent. (The notorious Williamsons of bogus roofing fame are Scottish travelers.)
Bunco cops know all the sad stories. The driveway paver whose "asphalt" is nothing but motor oil mixed with gravel. The "exterminator" who smuggles a piece of termite-eaten lumber into the attic and offers it as proof of infestation.
On the infrequent occasions that they're caught, gypsies and travelers rarely do time. Typically they offer full restitution in exchange for dropping the charges. "When they're arrested," said investigator John Wood, "they're usually the most polite, courteous people you'd ever want to meet."
Like everything else, it's an act. In addition to swindling the elderly, criminal gypsies go for insurance fraud, welfare cheating and shoplifting. They also excel at "store diversions" in which one family member creates a noisy scene while others empty the cash registers. This scheme netted $42,000 from one Chicago supermarket and has been used all over the country.
But these are the most tragic stories:
• A wheelchair-bound dialysis patient in Pinellas County found his house safe missing after gypsies "worked" on his roof.
• A wealthy 84-year-old widow in Houston was fleeced of $367,000 by Irish travelers who did only $2,500 worth of home repairs over 22 months. Police say the families passed the widow's name from one group to another because she was such an easy mark.
• Four gypsy women traveling through southern Ontario stole more than $500,000 from senior citizens during a three-month crime spree.
It's easy to dismiss the victims as gullible fools, but older folks are often intimidated into paying even if they don't want to. Commonly, gypsy roofers do the "work" first (usually a quick spray of useless paint), then demand an outrageous fee. If the victim balks, the clan members protest loudly and traipse through the home, searching for cash.
The "marks" are selected carefully. Almost always they are old, frail and alone. Because of failing eyesight or weak memories, they make poor witnesses in court. Humiliation and embarrassment discourage many victims from prosecuting. An 84-year-old widow who lost $44,000 in a gypsy burglary wanted to report the theft as only $100—she was afraid her relatives would put her in a nursing home if they learned the truth.
Miami officer Charlie Taylor, who specializes in tracking gypsy and traveler families: "When you talk to an old woman who's lost her entire life savings, it breaks your heart. What do you say to console her?"
Now is the season when the gypsies and traveler families start north, but police say they'll be back. Florida has been very good to them.