Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sweetheart Scams Alive and Well

By Stan Oklobdzija - Bee Staff Writer

A love affair with an alleged con artist has left a Rancho Cordova man not only heartbroken, but plain old broke as well.

Carl Miller, 77, is in the hole more than $200,000 after falling victim to a classic "sweetheart" scam, according to the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department.

In the course of a 2 1/2-year relationship, Miller refinanced his home to help him provide cash and gifts, including a car, to a woman who's either 36 or 37 years old, said Sgt. Micki Links, head of the sheriff's elder abuse and sex assault units.

Miller met the woman in the parking lot of a Rancho Cordova bank around January 2005, Links said.

"She starts right off with telling him she's very upset (because) creditors are after her," Links said. "(Then) she brings her kid around and starts working him."

Miller declined to comment for this article, saying he'd been advised not to speak about the case until the Sheriff's Department completes its investigation.

The sweetheart scam is a modern variation of an age-old ruse.

Links said younger women stake out places where they might find elderly men. Sometimes it's the bank where they can overhear them make a deposit or withdrawal, she said. Other times they'll scan the obituaries to find men whose wives have recently passed away.

The Phoenix Police Department maintains a Web site detailing the ins and outs of the sweetheart scam.

Once a scammer spots a potential mark, she'll try to figure out his financial situation through casual conversation, the site says. Then the scammer will exchange phone numbers with the victim.

The scammer will start calling or start showing up at the victim's place, according to the site. She'll usually present a tale of woe, escalating it each time to extract more money from the victim.

"Health issues, their family, they need money for tests, cancer, sending money to the home country," said Links, rattling off a list of popular lies.

Often, the money collected is sent to a waiting husband and children, Links said.

Links said Sacramento's elderly population gets its fair share of sweetheart scams.

Links said the suspect or suspects in this case are part of a criminal subculture of ethnic Roma. Commonly known as Gypies, the Roma are a nomadic people found throughout the world.

"We get them in spurts," she said. "(The women) live together and trade notes. A lot of them know each other through the clans."

Sometimes sweetheart scammers will go as far as marrying their victims. One surefire sign it's a scam marriage, Links said, is the lack of sexual relations.

"They get married in a civil ceremony and there's never a consummation," she said.

Nils Grevillius, a private investigator who splits his time between Pasadena and Des Moines, Iowa, said he has handled a few cases involving the Roma community.

Any non-clan member is known as a "Gajo," in the Roma language, he said.

"A female can't have sex with a Gajo," he explained. "She'd be 'marime' or impure."

Links said her detectives are still working on Miller's case. Unfortunately, it's part of a backlog of many elder abuse cases on her plate, she said.

"The sad part is that these victims are lonely," she said. "It's not so much about a romantic relationship, it's about companionship and someone to talk to. ... Then, thousands of dollars later, they realize they've been duped."

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