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Behind the badge of a community

Published on: July 8, 2015

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

HCSO Deputy Jeffery Merry is Sun City Center’s new Community Resource Deputy.  Mitch Traphagen photos.

HCSO Deputy Jeffery Merry is Sun City Center’s new Community Resource Deputy. Mitch Traphagen photos.

Deputy Jeffery Merry is a welcoming man; he says “sir” and “ma’am,” he smiles and has a firm handshake. He is a man of experience in bad things happening to good people. He is a man of cool competence yet with a warm heart.

He is ideally suited for Sun City Center. In April, he became that community’s Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Community Resource Deputy.

On his very first day on the job he was asked to give a talk to a community group that evening. He hit the ground running and has been on the move since.

“I’d like to tackle some of the bigger stuff, the real stuff,” he said.

He has been traveling the community, most recently giving seminars on scams and fraud, often to full houses of seniors with notepads and plenty of questions.

Before joining the HCSO in 2011, he was a white-collar crime detective in Georgia. Today, he is putting that experience to use — and widely sharing it — with the community he has been charged to protect and to serve.

“A lot of people have money, they have their nest eggs. And that makes them a target,” he said.

The fraud seminars were intended to alert seniors on how to recognize fraud and how to avoid becoming a victim. His mission is to help to prevent people from becoming victims. Stopping crime before it happens is his priority.

“Once the money is going, it’s usually just gone,” he said. “If you wire money to Nigeria, that money is just gone.”

And once that happens, the crime crosses multiple law-enforcement agencies. Agencies today are working together more than ever, but that doesn’t make it easier to reclaim money lost to a scammer living in a distant part of the world.

Fraud is often a hidden problem. Some seniors are reluctant to come forward to admit they have been taken. They don’t want their children to know, they don’t want their neighbors to know.

But Merry wants to know. He knows all too well just how good scammers have become, and to him there is no embarrassment — there is just a race against the clock to try to stop it.

“Banks can’t pry into how people spend their money,” he said. “That’s not their job, but if something seems obvious, I wish they could ask some questions.”

Deputy Jeffery Merry during one of his crime-prevention seminars last month. His mission is to protect the residents of Sun City Center by ensuring they don’t become victims in the first place.

Deputy Jeffery Merry during one of his crime-prevention seminars last month. His mission is to protect the residents of Sun City Center by ensuring they don’t become victims in the first place.

Scammers know no ethical or moral boundaries. With equal glee they will take the last few dollars from a senior on a subsistence living, or tens of thousands of dollars from seniors more well off. They will say or pretend to be anything or anyone to steal money from their victims — including purporting to be an agency as powerful as the Internal Revenue Service.

“I know the IRS robocalls are everywhere,” Merry said. “People need to be cognizant of that.”

The IRS will not call you to collect money. They will not threaten you. That is not how they operate.

Working to protect seniors from scams is in itself a full-time job in a place like Sun City Center. But working the streets, getting out into the community is also important. Merry recently came to agreements with the Sun City Center Plaza, assisted-living facilities, and other private locations for his deputies to have trespass authorization.

“Lately we’ve had some issues with dumpster divers and scrappers,” Merry said. “They are looking for stuff to sell, but the problem is they are causing damage. I met with those businesses and we now have trespass authorization, so if my guys catch somebody in there at 3 a.m., they don’t have to call the property managers — they can snatch them up and take care of it right then. Some of those places are managed by people in Tampa, so at 3 a.m. you just aren’t going to get a hold of anybody.”

And, from information provided by the deputy’s scam seminars last month, there could be treasure beyond recyclable metals while dumpster diving — people often simply throw away old credit card statements or unwanted pre-approved credit card offers. Both of which open the door to identity theft. Making dumpster diving that much more difficult may well have also saved some serious headaches for potential victims of fraud.

“Sun City Center is not going to get much bigger, but Ruskin and Wimauama are growing into it, adding more and more people,” Deputy Merry said. “This is also a commerce hub with Publix and Home Depot and new restaurants coming in. So there are more and more people, and we have to be aware. I plan to do a seminar for home awareness on burglaries when the snowbirds return this fall. There are so many little things you can do to protect your home.”

And one of the most important, according to the deputy, is watching out for your neighbors.

“Everyone can do their part to prevent criminals from hitting their house,” he said.

From working as a white-collar crime detective, Merry has rapidly made the shift from dealing only with bad guys to also working directly with the people he is charged to protect. And while he didn’t worry about the fate of the bad guys he caught, he does worry about some of the seniors in Sun City Center. He wants people to be safe, and beyond scammers or burglars, there is another element he has to deal with: time and age.

“You’re here to help and protect them through these times,” he said, referring to his job. “There are people out there with health issues; dementia, Alzheimer’s — and there is not a one-stop referral in these cases. I talked with a woman the other day — I was there for two hours and realized that she was basically hallucinating. She’d say, ‘Look at that hole,’ but you can’t just say there’s not a hole in her house; it’s what she was seeing.

“So I talked to the neighbors and they were concerned, too,” Merry said. “And then I talked to the family but they didn’t want to get involved, they just wanted me to fix it. I’m looking around for resources to help this lady. I’m not a medical practitioner.”

No, he’s a law enforcement officer who cares deeply. He is the face of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Sun City Center, a place of parents, grandparents, teachers, heroes and everything else. It is a place that he wants to protect — from the broad-scale threat of scammers in far off lands to the personal threats brought on by aging.

It’s not an easy job. There is nothing easy about it.

But if anyone can do it, that person is HCSO Deputy Jeffery Merry. A man of cool competence and a warm heart; he is an officer of the law who takes “to protect and serve” literally in both respects.

This month, Deputy Jeffery Merry will travel the community giving seminars on check schemes and fraud. The seminars will take place at the following locations:

• July 14 at 9 a.m., Community Association Sandpiper Room

• July 14 at 1 p.m., Kings Point Ripple Room

• July 15 at 2 p.m., American Momentum Bank

• July 16 at 10 a.m., Freedom Plaza Auditorium

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Sun City Center office is in the Community Association complex and may be reached by calling 813-672-7817. The HCSO non-emergency number is 813-247-8200.

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