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Seniors get in the act with skits to educate about scammers

An acting troupe of seniors gets in the act to stop scammers

So she's 96 and her eyesight's half gone. Peggy Mollin doesn't want to sit home alone.

Alone, she says, often leads to trouble, especially for people her age.

Calls. Knocks on the door. Emails. Flattering sales pitches from strangers.

"You love to talk to people and, when you're lonely, you have to be careful because they get you in a bind," she says.

IRS scams, sweetheart scams — Mollin's got their number.

She's the oldest member of the Stop Senior Scams Acting Program, which uses entertainment to educate the elderly. More than a quarter of those who reported falling victim to scams last year were 60 or older, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The actors are no spring chickens themselves. The youngest is 65. Mollin is one of three nonagenarians.

Still, they happily take their show on the road to nursing homes, churches, temples, senior centers and community groups.

On one particularly hot recent weekday, they headed to the San Fernando Valley for back-to-back performances. The first was at a Tarzana temple, the next at a senior center in Reseda.

They traveled in a white tour bus provided by City Councilman Bob Blumenfield. In between shows, there was barely time for fast-food.

Not that they showed any signs of flagging as they danced and belted out their signature song — "Just Hang Up!" — to the tune of "Don't Hang Up" (a big hit 53 years ago).

"Just hang up!

Oh yeah, before they try to scam you,

Just hang up!

Oh yeah, when they say they need your cash,

Hang the phone up in a flash.

They are only talking trash.

Just hang up!"

Their audiences often sing along, clap or tap out the beat with their canes and walkers.

::

Coming up with new material is easy. The actors draw on their personal experiences.

In one skit, Evelyn Rosenwein, 93, and Laurel Shapiro, 87, sit side by side in a library, checking their emails on computers.

Rosenwein: "Oh look, I just won the lottery!"

Shapiro: "What lottery?"

Rosenwein: "Well, the Nigerian lottery. It says here I just have to send $600 for the processing fee and I will get $3 million."

Shapiro: "Oh, I won that last week, and I sent my check and I still haven't gotten any money."

In another number, half a dozen women with flowers behind their ears and boxes of baked goods in their hands ring the doorbells of widowers. Using information from obituaries, they pretend to have known the men's wives.

"I'm so sorry to hear about your wife's passing. I knew her from the Opera Guild and I brought you a strawberry cheesecake," says one. They start touching the men and dancing with them as Abba's "Money, Money, Money" plays. Soon they're holding fistfuls of cash.

Each skit ends with the gotcha notes of the "Dragnet" theme.

Then the troupe's two retired judges, Francine Lyles, 73, and Rosalie Rakoff, 86, appear in their black robes. They go over what's just been illustrated and deliver stern warnings. Don't give money or personal information to a stranger. Never act alone or in haste.

They encourage people to take home the free printed materials available — from the city, the FTC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. All have websites to go to, numbers to call. If something seems fishy, they say, pick up the phone right away.

Rakoff scowls as, in unison, the petite pair point their fingers and say, "Remember, only you can stop senior scams!"

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The group got its start six years ago in Adrienne Omansky's acting class for older adults. Mollin and others joined hoping to break into commercials — and many have.

Mollin once did an ad for now-defunct Southern Bell, in which she said, "I love it when my son calls, but every day, sometimes twice a day?" (She says she had the contract framed.)

Early on, the class at the Felicia Mahood senior center made occasional visits to nursing homes. Then someone in a City Council office suggested they act out senior scams. They ran with it, said Omansky, who's taught adult education classes for 37 years.

At first, she said, it was hard to find places for the group to perform — and people would allow them only five or 10 minutes. Now they sometimes take the stage for an hour, and public officials show up.

At Temple Judea, the back of the room was full of police personnel — the valley's chief of operations, detectives and uniformed officers. Several briefed the group about popular scams. One detective asked audience members whether they owned their homes free and clear. When most hands shot up, he told them their wealth was why scammers like them so much.

At ONEgeneration Senior Enrichment Center, a deputy city attorney gave a presentation before the show. But the skits really got the crowd going.

Mollin is always a crowd favorite. She has a shock of white hair, a natural delivery and a strong New York accent, even after a quarter of a century in L.A.

Playing the lead in a skit about the driver's license scam, she's on the phone with a friend when the doorbell rings. She welcomes in a stranger who calls himself Mr. Young.

He tells her that her home is beautiful. She kvells about her daughter, the interior decorator. Young promises her that, thanks to him, she'll get a new driver's license in the mail — without having to pass a pesky eye exam or driving test.

Soon she's writing him a $1,500 check.

"Mr. Young, you made my day!" she coos as he leaves. He kisses the check and says that no, she made his.

Even with all they know, the actors are the first to admit they're vulnerable. People shouldn't be embarrassed about it, they say. Con artists are skilled.

A few weeks ago, one member of the group wired money to Mexico in terror after she got a call from people who said they had kidnapped her granddaughter and would kill the girl if she didn't pay up fast.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey launched a public awareness campaign after her own mother was duped in just such a grandparent scam.

Mollin says sometimes even she is too trusting.

Once, she says, she paid $50 for a diamond and wound up with a zircon. "I was really a victim, I would say."

And if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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To report a scam aimed at a senior citizen, call the L.A. County Elder Abuse Hotline at (877) 477-3646

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