For nearly all of his 95 years, Walter lived in a home on Mont Pleasant’s Congress Street. For 40 years, he walked to his job as a material handler at General Electric.
And for most of those years, his niece said, Walter’s biggest worry was that rain would darken his walks around the neighborhood.
That changed in January 2011, when two con artists — Andrew Kelly and Henry Hicks — darkened Walter’s doorstep.
“I knew something was wrong just by the tone of his voice,” Walter’s niece, Lynn, told The Sunday Gazette. In a whisper, Walter, then 92, said he needed her to come over and tell her something. “When I went over, it took him a long time because he was so embarrassed.”
What had happened was those con artists had fast-talked him out of $700 in phony repairs to his home. His niece shared her uncle’s story on condition that neither their last names be used, to respect his wishes for privacy even after his 2013 passing.
But she also wanted to share his story in hopes of helping others. She said the incident had a marked effect on her uncle, a man who also served as a material handler in Europe during World War II.
* New York state’s Tips for Preventing Financial Exploitation: www.ny.gov/tips-preventing-elder-financial-exploitation
* StopSeniorScams.org, a service of the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging: www.stopseniorscams.org
* National Council on Aging: www.ncoa.org
The incident, she said, caused her uncle to become fearful in his final days.
Walter’s story of becoming a victim is by no means unique. Con artists target older residents, counting on seniors’ trust, and on their embarrassment and fear that the slip-up could be used against them and cause them to lose their independence, experts say.
Hicks, 58, of Albany, has a long history of perpetrating such crimes, records show. He and Kelly went to prison for what they did to Walter. But Hicks was arrested again after he got out, accused of helping scam 10 more senior victims in Albany County.
The scams themselves range widely. There’s the distant telemarketer who convinces older residents to give to fake charities or send money under the guise of a fake future payout. There are those that operate like Hicks, showing up on older residents’ doorstep, and convincing the senior to pay to fix nonexistent problems or to pay exorbitant prices to fix minor problems.
Last week Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office put out an advisory with a list of consumer tips to guard against financial exploitation of seniors.
The governor’s office cited a 2011 MetLife study that estimated financial exploitation of seniors nationwide costs them $2.9 billion each year. The state also cited a 2010 survey by Investor Protection Trust that estimated 1 in 5 people over the age of 65 had been victimized by some sort of financial fraud.
Walter was vigilant, his niece said. But he was caught off guard at a local supermarket. That’s when Hicks’ associate Kelly, then 32, found him.
Kelly approached the older man, happy to see him, saying he had been his paperboy, according to the story Walter relayed to his niece.
Kelly said he remembered Walter, but not his street name. Walter filled it in: Congress Street. Kelly then said he could see Walter’s house, but he couldn’t remember the number. Walter gave it.
“He said ‘The moment it came out of my mouth, I knew I was in trouble,’ ” Lynn, Walter’s niece, said. “He knew in Price Chopper that he was in trouble.”
The trusting Walter also didn’t remember something else: Walter walked everywhere, including to pick up his Gazette every morning. He never had his paper delivered.
Days later, Kelly was at Walter’s door, and fast-talked his way inside. Lynn recalled her uncle relaying that he immediately became uncomfortable. “He said ‘I just wanted him to go.’ ”
Kelly asked to use the bathroom, and then pointed out that there was water all over the bathroom floor. Suddenly, Hicks was at the door — as Kelly’s friend the plumber — and let himself in.
After doing something in the bathroom, the two demanded payment for their “work.” Walter didn’t have cash. He offered to call a family member so they could get cash. They declined and accepted a check.
Both Kelly and Hicks were later charged and accepted prison terms for their role in the scam. Hicks received 31⁄2 years; Kelly 41⁄2 years. They each pleaded guilty to one count of felony attempted burglary.
Hicks was released last summer and quickly got involved in further scams targeting seniors in Albany County. Albany County prosecutors announced the arrest of Hicks and six others last month. Hicks was described as often at the center of the crimes, identifying seniors for the others to target in over-payment scams. Prosecutors identified 10 victims in all.
Hicks pleaded guilty to related crimes and is to be sentenced next month to up to 9 to 18 years in state prison. The group was charged under the state’s hate crime statute, for targeting the victims due to their age.
Walter didn’t lose nearly as much as some of the Albany County victims did financially. What he lost, though, was more than money, his niece said.
Walter had lived nearly all his life on Congress Street in the same home. After he was scammed, and knowing his scammers knew where he lived, he never felt comfortable there again.
Walter’s niece spoke at the 2012 sentencing of Hicks and Kelly, telling the judge how fearful her uncle became, how he felt he had to sleep with a baseball bat, even a knife.
Within a year of it happening, Lynn said, Walter moved from his home.
“Seniors, they’re trusting,” David Jordan, executive director of the Montgomery County Office for the Aging. “A lot of seniors they deal with have maybe never dealt with a scam before and people are slick.”
As for the scammers, Jordan said, “it’s kind of sad and a little disheartening that people would target such a vulnerable population, but we tell people they need to be vigilant.”
National Counsel on Aging reports on its website that seniors are targeted because they are thought to have money available. The risk of getting caught is also considered low.
The council also notes that, of reported elder financial abuse, 90 percent is committed by family members.
“The bottom line is that scammers and fraudsters are extremely creative,” said Ramsey Alwin, vice president of economic security for the counsel. “They’re always coming up with new pitches that sound very convincing.”
Alwin said the main advice for seniors put in a situation where someone is pressuring them is to step back.
“It’s good to just put a stop to it, take a step back, close the door, put down the phone and do a little research,” Alwin said.
Alwin said it’s also important to know that anyone can fall prey to scams.
“We really need to chip away at that stigma,” Alwin said, “and have some open and candid conversations about what it means to fall prey, have honest conversations about how sophisticated the scams can be. It’s not an indicator of cognitive abilities declining, necessarily.”
It can just be a skilled scammer seeing an opportunity, Alwin said. Talking about it can ensure seniors are protected in the future.