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If it sounds too good to be true, you’d better check it out!

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Scamming is happening everywhere and seniors are especially targeted because that generation is trusting,

BY PENNY FLETCHER

Someone knocks at your door offering a really, really good deal.

You know your roof needs repair, or your driveway leveled. Or you could be looking for a way to vacation occasionally and considering buying into a timeshare. And while you’re away, wouldn’t it be nice to have a good alarm system on guard in your house?

Now there’s someone at your door offering just the service you need at what seems to be a price that’s too good to be true.

Beware!

All these things and many more have been the subject of recent scams taking place all over the state, many right here in Hillsborough County.

“Scamming is happening everywhere and seniors are especially targeted because that generation is trusting,” said Jim Granan, manager of the south Hillsborough County branch of the state-run Seniors vs. Crime program.

Although the all-volunteer office is located in Sun City Center, the office covers the geographical area between the St. Petersburg and Sarasota office, which includes all of the coverage area of this newspaper from south Brandon and Tampa through Apollo Beach and Ruskin, Sun City to the Manatee County line, and east into Wimauma, Riverview and FishHawk.

“We want people to know our service is free to them,” Granan said. “We want people to call for advice before they pay out any money if they even think they might not have a legitimate deal.”

Some deals are way too good to be true.

One woman answered her door for a man who claimed he would do a $59 air duct cleaning and ended up paying more than $2,500 for work she didn’t order.

A local man was moved into the home of a nursing assistant from a nursing home where his out-of-state family had placed him and had his bank account drained.

The stories are varied and endless. Trusting people — usually older and used to honesty — are bombarded with scammers at their doors, on their computers, and in their mail.

So what’s a person to do?

Fortunately Seniors vs. Crime is free to users. The problem is that it has no budget for advertising and word is only spread through word-of-mouth.

“We wish people would contact us so we could get them the help they need before they’re scammed,” said volunteer Brian Stevenson. “We’ve actually seen the same person burned three times thinking he’s sold or rented his timeshares. When we checked it out it was traced to a company in Oregon that had 240 complaints against it. Then it was found there wasn’t even a company, the address was just a parking lot. These scams are often run by people with just a telephone and a post office box.”

Sometimes, like in the air-duct case, someone solves the problem and gets the job done or the money returned, but not without a lot of help.

Gail Gause, another local volunteer, managed to get ABC Action News involved and one of the investigators called the air-duct scammer. “The ABC investigators used one of their homes and caught the scammer,” Gause said. “But many go uncaught, or even unreported.”

Because scams were evolving at a tremendous rate, the State Attorney’s Office formed the Seniors vs. Crime program in 1989 and opened an office in Sun City Center in 2008 with Norman Meyers as its original manager.

Now, eight volunteers spend about 100 hours a month operating in the South County area. Last year they recovered about $25,000 and solved 58 cases.

“No problem is too small,” Gause said. “We’ve seen checks forged to buy a car, stocks cashed, and someone who wired close to $6,000 in $300 money orders overseas supposedly for taxes on millions of dollars of lottery winnings.”

Seniors often give up rather than make frustrating telephone calls thwarted by seemingly endless voicemail messages to offices that refer them from place to place, Stevenson said.

Feb. 28 the Sun City Center Men’s Club held a program with speakers from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission, the Florida Attorney General’s Office, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and more.

But the local volunteers want South County residents to know that this service is offered to everyone in the area, even though the office is located in Sun City Center. If someone from outside the covered area calls, they will be referred to their local office, which means every caller will receive some kind of help if they need it.

“This program allows seniors to be actively involved in their own and their younger citizen’s protection,” Granan said.

What began as a crime prevention program involving senior citizens helping other seniors has now evolved into a statewide program providing direct services to seniors who have been victimized, scammed, defrauded or cheated.

“There are dishonest people out there who would like nothing more than to separate you from your money,” Granan said. “That’s what we’re here to stop.”

The local office is at 137 South Pebble Beach Blvd., Sun City Center. The phone number is (813) 634-8666.

To find out more, visit www.seniorsvscrime.com.

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