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Monday, May 7, 2012

Elderly people with memory loss targeted by home repair scammers

What do Gypsies, Irish Travelers, and woodchucks all have in common? They’re prowling the streets of Annandale looking for people they can rip off, especially elderly people with mental deterioration.

Det. Ryan Young of the Mason Police District spoke at a recent Citizens Advisory Committee meeting about how these scammers are operating unscrupulous home improvement schemes targeting the elderly .

Members of these groups often overcharge for a minimal amount of work, often by a grossly inflated amount, or demand payment upfront and fail to do the work. Young notes that one elderly resident of Mason District forked over $80,000 to one of these scam artists over a two-month period.

When caught, these scammers can be arrested for “obtaining money by false pretenses,” and if the amount is over $200, it’s a felony, he says. They can also be charged with operating a home improvement business without a license.

People knocking on your door seeking work can be charged with “soliciting without a proper license”—even if they have one but can’t produce it when asked. They can also be charged if you have a “no solicitors” sign even if they have a license. And they can be charged if you ask for their license and they fail to show you their credentials. 

Young described three cases in 2011 that all resulted in convictions:

In one case, a member of a Gypsy clan flagged down a 92-year-old woman in a parking lot in the Alexandria area of the Mason District and said her car had dents and scratches and that he could fix it on the spot. She agreed.

When he asked her to hold a piece of cardboard while he worked on the car, he “accidentally” sprayed paint on the 3.9 carat diamond ring she was wearing and promised to clean it up. She let him put the ring in a canister and told her he was going to take it to a store and buy something to clean it with. When he came back, he gave her the canister and fled the scene. She later discovered her ring had been replaced with a cheap fake.

The police got fingerprints from the car, which were matched with a physical description given by the victim. It turns out he had violated probation from other crimes and is now in jail in another part of the state. The ring was not recovered.

The second case involved a 62-year-old man with mental deficiencies who lived alone in the Falls Church area of Mason. Two guys convinced him his roof needed repairs. They spent 30 minutes on his roof, charged $21,000, and told the victim the payment must be in cash.The suspects took the victim to his bank and instructed him to say he needed the money for a new car. The man spent four days going to different BB&T branches and finally got enough money to pay off the suspects.  

Then, one of the guys came back. He told the victim he had done more work on the roof and demanded an additional $19,500. This guy began calling the victim many times a day on a land line with a blocked number, Young says. By this time, the police had been informed, and they instructed the victim to use *57 next time the scammer called.

The police traced the suspect to a  camping ground in Prince William County where about 50 members of an Irish Traveller clan were spending the season. The man had a fake ID and a matching birth certificate, but his story crumbled, and he was arrested for using false pretenses with the intent to commit fraud.

He is serving a one and a-half year sentence in the Fairfax County jail. When he gets out, he faces a similar charge in Pennsylvania and a weapons charge in New York. His accomplice was never caught.  It turns out the only work he did on the victim’s roof was rub compound cement on nine shingles.

“Crime is a way of life” for the Irish Travelers, Young says. In court, the suspect’s lawyer tried, unsuccessfully, to pay off the victim for $12,000 “to make it go away.”

The third case involves a “woodchuck,” which refers to a network of scam artists, often from rural areas, who prey on elderly residents, often grossly overcharging for tree trimming and landscape work.

This time, the victim was a 93-year-old World War II veteran who lives alone in Annandale and had severe memory problems. The woodchuck convinced the man to pay him $3,250 for repairing his roof. Then, taking advantage of the victim’s memory loss, told him he hadn’t paid for the work yet and demanded another $3,250. When the victim’s son learned what was going on, he called the police.

Meanwhile, the woodchuck went down the street knocking looking for fresh victims. He thought he found an easy mark when an elderly woman with an oxygen tank answered her door. The suspect threw some worms on her porch and told her they were “South American termites” and need to be treated immediately. She shooed him away and called the police.

The woodchuck, who was also wanted in five other jurisdictions for the same thing, was charged with two misdemeanors in Fairfax County.
“It’s nice that we caught these guys,” says Capt. Gun Lee, commander of the Mason Police District. “It’s better for the community if we can prevent these crimes from happening. Although we’re seeing an increase in the number of these cases, I’m concerned about the cases not being reported to use because the victims are embarrassed about it.”

Young acknowledged these types of crimes are hard to prosecute because victims with memory problems have a hard time identifying suspects and recounting their dealings with them.

Young urges people to keep an eye on their elderly neighbors and call the police if you see something suspicious. Often, these guys do legitimate work, then try to find elderly people to scam by looking for old cars and cars with handicapped signs, he says.

When they knock on a door, they might ask if so-and-so is there, then say they’ve got the wrong house. “That’s a common tactic of burglars checking to see if anyone is home,” Young says. If that seems fishy, call the cops.

The presence of “nondescript crews”—with no sign on their truck and no business logo on their shirts—is also suspicious, he says. Other red flags: workers who only accept cash and a group of workmen at a house for an extended period, with some of them working on their own cars.

Sometimes multiple groups show up at the same house, he says, because woodchucks talk to one another about their victims. You might see one crew at a house one day and another crew a few days later chopping a limb off the same tree.

“Chances are high these groups are visiting your neighborhood,” Young says.


  1. I find the first sentence of this post somewhat surprising. Not all Roma are thieves by any means, and they have suffered racial discrimination for many years, including persecution by the Nazis. My impression is that Irish Travelers too engage in a variety of occupations. I presume the Fairfax County Police mentioned above did not mean to implicate people based on their membership in an ethnic group - how ironic it would be after how far we have come, for that kind of categorization to reemerge in our county.

  2. Good point. I certainly didn't intend to malign any groups, and of course not all members of the groups mentioned here are criminals.

  3. Electrician Brisbane5/8/12, 10:05 PM

    I just saw a little kid yesterday, working at the docks around 11 years old carrying boxes and stuff. Which brings me to the point, if this little kid has found something to do to help his family, what excuse can these people possibly have for making such a crime for money?