O.C. Retirement Centers Are Swindlers' Paradise : Scams: Walls and security guards can't keep out all con artists. Seniors who are lonely, flush with cash are vulnerable.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wilma Rigo left her crime-plagued neighborhood in Los Angeles seeking what so many others have: a place where she could retire in comfort and enjoy the security of knowing that her needs would be met.

She settled in Leisure World, a small city unto itself with a population of 21,000, where 250 security officers patrol the grounds around the clock to protect residents from the kind of robbers who had brutally beaten Rigo's neighbor in broad daylight a decade ago in Los Angeles.

But what Rigo did not anticipate was a different type of crime, one that targets the elderly, the lonely, and one that renders the security of Leisure World worthless: Two "entrepreneurs" persuaded her to invest $61,000--her life savings--in two questionable financial deals.

"I feel like I've been hypnotized," said the 82-year-old widow, who has spent countless hours during the last year writing letters to the district attorney, the governor and even President Bush asking for help in recovering her money. "I'm not that dumb. Really. I never thought that this (rip-off) could happen here."

But it does.

Rigo is what authorities call a classic victim of con artists and swindlers who have targeted retirees in Leisure World and other retirement communities and walk away with millions of dollars in cash and property every year.

For its part, Leisure World does its best to warn residents of the scams that target the elderly. Social workers employed by Leisure World run seminars, distribute flyers and counsel people on how to avoid being swindled.

Still, court records and dozens of interviews with judges, attorneys, social workers, law enforcement officials and Leisure World retirees paint a picture of a community besieged by unscrupulous businessmen.

"I sometimes think of Leisure World as a pool of small fish with the sharks feeding and circling around the perimeters," said Orange County Superior Court Judge James A. Jackman, who during his two-year tenure in probate court encountered several cases in which the estates of Leisure World residents were raided.

"Many elderly people have found a safe haven for themselves in Leisure World, but they have become obvious targets by being concentrated in a group."

Nobody knows exactly how many seniors in Leisure World fall victim to swindlers. But Allen Cox, supervisor of the county's Adult Protective Services, said the division has handled 269 reports of elder abuse in the Leisure World area since 1986--about 25% of which involved fraud and other fiduciary abuse.

And that, officials say, may be only the tip of the iceberg.

Margaret Beck, program manager for adult services in the county's Social Services Agency, said her office suspects that "we don't receive hundreds . . . of these reports. Many elderly people are too embarrassed to let the public know that they got ripped off. It's not something they want advertised."

"You name it and Leisure World's got it," said Cox, who also chairs a multidisciplinary team of law enforcement officials and social workers that meets each month to monitor reports of elder abuse in the county. "Attorneys, carpet cleaners and family members rip off the residents there. Virtually anyone that comes in contact with them tries to get something in return."

Leisure World is in fact a microcosm of the world of seniors nationwide in which a panoply of frauds accounts for $10 billion every year, said Lee Pearson, assistant manager of criminal services for the American Assn. of Retired Persons in Washington. The AARP, which distributes warnings to its members to be on the lookout for con artists, says the same scams make their way across the nation.

Toshio Tatara, director of the National Aging Resource Center on Elder Abuse in Washington, said at least 20% of the 2 million "reportable" elder abuse cases in 1988--the latest statistics available--involved financial exploitation of the elderly.

Authorities say retirees are prime targets for rip-offs because they are more likely to be estranged from family and friends, to suffer gradual losses of memory and accept deals that offer high-yield interest to preserve their buying power.

As the sitting probate judge in Orange County Superior Court, Tully H. Seymour said he has seen how seniors become vulnerable.

"They're lonely, isolated and some of them have diminished mental powers so they can't keep track of things very well," Seymour said. "They can fall prey to service-type people like gardeners, friends and family who get them to sign blank checks . . . anyone in a position of trust."

Leisure World's security officials say they have encountered cases in which carpet cleaners charge up to $2,500 to clean carpets and drapes; people peddle "cures" for arthritis, and so-called care-givers drain the bank accounts of their clients.

Daniel Woodward, chief of security at Leisure World, said he sees abuses of a lesser sort every day, noting that residents lose tens of thousands of dollars each year to phony charitable groups.

"There are so-called charitable organizations that work this community every day of every year. They seek donations for every thing in the news," he said. "We've seen cases in which care-givers enter a resident's life and in three weeks they get power of attorney, the combination for the safe, keys to safety deposit boxes and control over the resident's life . . . all in the name of taking care of the resident."

Woodward said he delivers about 20 lectures a year to alert residents to beware of scam artists and frequently appears on the community's cable television to warn of new schemes making the rounds.

One reason Leisure World is such a lucrative target for con artists and bona fide money handlers is that many of the 21,000 residents have sold their homes or businesses before moving there and are flush with cash. And residents often don't know exactly what to do with it, experts say.

Latest available data estimates that the average Leisure World resident has an income of $20,580 a year. By comparison, the county's average was $13,974 and the state's was $11,763. Financial brokers estimate the average Leisure World estate at $300,000 to $400,000.

It is little wonder then that on any given day unscrupulous telemarketing operators bombard Leisure World residents with calls seeking "investments" in penny stocks, oil-and-gas drilling, time-share condominiums, vacation lures, foreign currencies, precious metals, coins, gems and other bogus investment schemes.

Authorities believe that the vast majority of fraud cases often go unreported--and unnoticed. In the majority of cases, the elderly residents become victims of trust.

Like Rigo.

Rigo is by no means rich. When she retired in the mid-1970s from her $500-a-month job at a Los Angeles stock firm, she decided to move to Leisure World in 1980 with plans to live on her $600 monthly Social Security. She set aside the $61,000 that she had saved all her life to buy a new car and "to see the world."

That changed when the telephone calls started coming.

The "entrepreneur" who called Rigo said he wanted her to invest money to drill for gas near the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley. When she inquired about the return on her investment, he told her about another "wonderful investment opportunity": His friend in Irvine was manufacturing an oil filter that would never need replacement. He even took her on a personal tour of an industrial complex in Irvine where the filters would be manufactured.

Rigo became good friends with the man, who took her out to regular lunches. One day, he even brought his mother over to visit Rigo. She relished the attention that he was paying her, she said.

"He also promised to take me dancing one day," said Rigo, adding that she had told him that "I just love to dance, but I have no one to dance with."

It was then that Rigo committed what investigators say was a fatal flaw: She canceled three of her personal certificates of deposit worth $61,000 and gave the money to the businessman--without receiving adequate investment documents in return.

The calls and visits have since stopped.

Rigo said the district attorney's office told her that it would be difficult to prosecute the case because Rigo's "investment" could be construed as a loan. And it comes as little comfort to Rigo that investigators have advised her to seek redress by filing a civil suit against the businessman.

Rigo is not alone. For example, authorities alleged that Leslie Gall, known as the "Sweetheart Swindler," courted and conned elderly women he had met at seniors' dances in California and Florida.

When Gall was arrested by authorities in Redondo Beach last year, he was carrying a Thomas Bros. map with senior centers in the greater Los Angeles area highlighted with colored ink. Gall, who was sentenced to three years in jail for stealing $54,000 in stock certificates from a Pico Rivera woman he dated, confessed that he focused on elderly women and "made them No. 1. . . . They were wanted."

Jackman, the Superior Court judge, said not everyone who comes in contact with the elderly should be portrayed as unscrupulous. "There are angels in this system, people who care for the elderly for little or no pay," he said. "But I've seen enough probate and conservatorship cases to know that some people see the elderly as a possible source of a windfall. They think that if they get in good with them during their last few days, they will be rewarded. There are those who go a step further--from fond hopes to thieves. . . ."

Nancy Sloman, 65, of Pasadena said she knows too well the results of loneliness and estrangement. Sloman was caring for her 85-year-old Leisure World aunt, Florence Batty, who was ailing--and mourning the death of her husband.

Sloman said she would visit her aunt "every few months and call her once a week." After Batty was released from Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in December, 1989, Sloman arranged for a care-giver from a local nurses' registry to provide 24-hour care for her, and then took off on a trip to Mexico.

When she returned two weeks later, Sloman discovered that the care-giver had sold Batty's condominium, managed to have a new will drawn up with herself as the sole beneficiary and bought two one-way tickets for Batty and herself to Tennessee.

Sloman learned about the development only after her aunt's attorney called to say that the care-giver was attempting to get power of attorney for Batty's estate.

Meanwhile, Leisure World social workers investigating complaints that the care-giver would not allow neighbors to visit Batty called sheriff's investigators. In the end, Sloman was able to stop escrow on the condominium and sheriff's investigators asked the woman to leave the area.

Sloman has since sold her aunt's condominium and moved Batty to a board-and-care facility in Pasadena, a short distance away from her house.

"I think most people (whose) relatives live away think they're safe," Sloman said. "But it's a living nightmare when these estate raiders come into your lives. My aunt certainly needed more supervision than I was giving her. Now, I have to call her three or four times a week just to reassure her that everything is OK."

One reason why the public never hears about cases such as Batty's is because they are almost never prosecuted.

In Batty's case, authorities said she would not have been a reliable witness because of her fading memory. And Sloman said she also did not want to put her aunt through a tortuous court battle.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Rosanne Froeberg, who is in charge of the elder abuse cases in Orange County, said prosecuting cases such as Batty's are always difficult because of the inability of many victims to testify in court.

"It's difficult getting an elderly person to testify against someone who victimized them when he or she is not able to remember exactly what happened," Froeberg said, noting that only a handful of cases of fiduciary abuse against the elderly have been filed in Orange County this year. "When some elderly people lose their faculties, they become like children, but the law still treats them as competent adults. For us to file cases, we have to prove beyond any doubt that they did not give permission for the alleged abuser to take their money. In many cases, they don't even believe that they're being ripped off."

Tatara, of the National Aging Resource Center on Elder Abuse, agreed that present laws are inadequate to deal with financial exploitation of the elderly.

"Elder abuse is at the stage where child abuse was 15 years ago," Tatara said. "Some states do have statutes dealing with elder abuse, but the laws provide for reporting cases of abuses instead of tracking down the crooks."

Court files at the Probate Department of the Orange County Superior Court are also filled with disputes involving the estates of Leisure World residents. While many of the cases involve will contests between feuding relatives and friends, others reveal how the property of Leisure World residents sometimes winds up in the hands of strangers.

Joe Lehosit, chief deputy with the county's public guardian office, said at least 10 of his office's 60 ongoing investigations of fiduciary abuse involve Leisure World residents.

"One reason why Leisure World is such a hot spot is that there are many elderly people there who have no children or they have outlived their relatives," Lehosit said. "They seek out people here to befriend, and they sometimes put their lives in the hands of total strangers. Many times, they are betrayed."

Acting on a request from the public guardian's office, probate court Judge Seymour appointed a conservator to control the estate of a Leisure World couple, Charles Wesley Punton, 89, and Frances Punton, his wife of 67 years.

Public Guardian investigators began looking into the Puntons' estate after receiving reports that the couple's bank account had suffered "extreme losses" of about $336,000 in one year. In addition, Charles Punton had given their Leisure World property to Cecelia June Hubbert, an El Toro woman who has assisted him since 1990 in paying his bills, court records stated.

The couple were hospitalized at Lake Forest Nursing Center. Frances Punton is suffering from Alzheimer's disease while her husband is recovering from colon cancer and congestive heart failure, according to court records.

Court documents also stated that within the last six months several checks were written for an excess of $24,000. In addition to the large transactions, several smaller checks, totaling in excess of $4,000 a month for several months in 1990 and 1991, have been written to pay for services provided by Hubbert.

Charles Punton told investigators that he has "complete trust" in Hubbert and wrote the checks only to allow her to set up a new account that would allow him to donate money according to his religious beliefs without the scrutiny of family members. He also said that Hubbert had agreed to care for him and his wife if she were given their property at Leisure World Towers.

"Although Mr. Punton was very clear and adamant about maintaining his own independence, it is also very clear that Mr. Punton is confused about the true purpose of his financial dealings and in fact admitted such," the public guardian report stated. "It is therefore the investigating deputy's opinion that Mr. Punton is substantially unable to manage his financial resources and/or to resist fraud or undue influence and is there in need of a conservator."

Punton's attorney, Lawrence Norman of Laguna Hills, said Hubbert has since repaid the couple $150,000 in cash. She is also in the process of signing over the deed to Puntons' condominium to the couple, Norman said.

Hubbert could not be reached for comment, and her attorney did not return numerous calls.

"My client thought, in some mistaken manner, that he was giving her the money to fulfill her stated wish to establish some kind of religious ministry of her own," Norman said.

Norman said, however, that the Punton case could be considered a success since it appeared that the Puntons will be repaid.

But he added: "What about all the other cases that we never hear about? Sometimes, people in my profession are the sharks. We're here to protect people; these are the people who've lived through the Depression and made this country great. We owe them the duty to be Ceasar's wife, beyond reproach. But many people in my profession just see them as a windfall."

Jackman and other experts believe that changes in the law may be necessary to prevent people from preying on the elderly.

"We know it happens all too frequently because so much of the court's time is devoted to trying to address the problem," Jackman said. "There are no easy solutions, but something needs to be put in place to make sure it's not so easy to prey on the elderly."

Jackman, who chairs a committee on conservatorships for the Judicial Council, said his committee might recommend that the establishment of safety measures to prevent people from bilking the elderly.

"But we have to be careful about what we recommend because we live in a society that is ambivalent about how and when to restrict a person's rights and freedoms. We often say that if he or she is not a threat to others, let's leave them alone. While we do not want to have a Big Brother society, we have to step in at some point."

Meanwhile, Wilma Rigo said she hopes that she somehow gets her money. She said that she spends "every minute of the day" thinking about the loss.

But Rigo still harbors secret hopes that she will be repaid before she dies.

"If I ever get that money back," she said, with a pained look on her face, "I'm gonna go dancing."

How to Avoid the Scam Authorities say that most successful con games are old ones that are merely updated for today's circumstances. Here are some common swindles suffered by seniors in retirement communities across the nation: * The Carpet Cleaner Con: A salesman offers bargain prices to clean carpeting in your house. But on inspection, he says it is too soiled, and the price skyrockets. Sometimes, the salesman requests a deposit to begin work and then work crews never show up. * The Home Inspection Deal: A contractor offers to upholster furniture, repaint your house, exterminate pests, etc. He takes a deposit and carts the furniture away but never returns it. Or, he charges for work that is unnecessary in the first place or for work that is never performed. * Bank Examiner Scheme: The centuries-old scheme still works, especially among older people. The con artists, posing as law enforcement officials or bank examiners, ask the victim to help them test the honesty of bank employees by withdrawing substantial funds. When the money is handed over to the "official" for examination, he issues a receipt and disappears. * Investment Schemes: Telephone solicitors promise cheap land, security investments, money-making franchises, precious metals and penny stocks at unbelievable prices. * Quackery: Swindlers peddle bogus cures for arthritis, cancer, failing eyesight and other ailments suffered by seniors. Products are never sent, and if they are, they are overpriced and useless. * Charitable / Religious Donations: Seniors are solicited by organizations that change their names to reflect an issue that is receiving attention in the media. For example, during the Persian Gulf War, several groups solicited money to support the troops. If, for example, a firefighter is injured in a daring rescue, the solicitors ask for money to support his family. The majority of the groups are bogus, authorities say. * Travel Bargains: Many seniors hunt for travel bargains, so con artists devise schemes that offer bargain packages to glamorous and exotic places. If it sounds too good to be true, then avoid it or check it out thoroughly. Source: American Assn. of Retired Persons, Washington.

Abuse Indicators Many retirees have fallen prey to relatives, friends and care-providers who raid their estates. Following are some indicators that financial abuse may be under way: * Unusual activity in bank accounts. * Power of attorney is obtained when the person is unable to comprehend his or her own financial situation. * Recent change of title to a house in favor of a "friend" when the older person is incapable of understanding the nature of the transaction. * Recent will has been drawn up when the person is clearly incapable of making a will. * Recent acquaintances expressing affection for a wealthy older person. * Personal belongings such as art, jewelry, silverware are missing. * Care-giver tries to isolate an older adult from friends and family, says no one wants to see him/her; older person then becomes isolated and alienated from them, comes to rely on care-giver alone, who then has control of finances. * Promises of lifelong care in exchange for willingness to deed all property and bank accounts to a caretaker. * Signatures on checks that do not resemble older person's signature. * Checks and other documents signed when older person cannot write. Source: California Department of Justice.

Where to Seek Help: * The Orange County Sheriff's Department Fraud Unit, (714) 647-7000, and your local police department have special investigators to pursue fraud cases. * U.S. Postal Service investigates bogus mail-order investments and other businesses that advertise and sell through the mail. * The American Assn. of Retired Persons distributes a catalogue, "What Can You Do About Crime?" that details how not to be a victim of fraud. The AARP's address is AARP Fulfillment, 1909 K St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20049.

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