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Fall, winter peak time for scams

As the love bugs leave hilly Hernando County for warmer climes, another nuisance arrives on the heels of our elderly winter residents: rip-off artists who specialize in a variety of scams.

These criminals often take advantage of the elderly by offering to do jobs those residents might be incapable of doing, giving a too-good-to-be-true price to begin with and then, when the work is finished, charging a much higher amount.

If the customer at first refuses to pay, the swindlers, who usually do not work alone, intimidate the elderly person until they get their money.

The work often turns out to be slipshod and customers must spend more to fix it again. And when they realize they have been swindled, elderly victims often are too embarrassed to report it to authorities.

Assistant State Attorney Don Scaglione said victims should report such incidents to police or the state attorney's office.

"It is totally improper and uncalled for to exploit our elderly population," Scaglione said. "But many fail to make a complaint because they don't want friends or relatives to know they've been taken."

Also, he said, the judicial system now deals sternly and quickly with those accused of exploiting the elderly. If found guilty, defendants often receive longer prison or probationary sentences than they would have if simply accused of fraud, Scaglione said.

Though such incidents occur year-round, the fall and winter months are a peak time, authorities say, so residents should be wary of wandering repairmen with no credentials and an offer that seems too good to be turned down.

"I think the bottom line is that it is human nature to get everything you can for the least amount," said Sheriff Thomas Mylander. "If it sounds too good to be true, a lot of

times it is. It may be shady and the victims may get burned."

Mylander said the swindlers often are Northern subcontractors who cannot find work back home, so they follow the waves of part-time Florida residents hoping to make a quick buck for shoddy work.

Often, they show up on a victim's doorstep without being called. They say they will pave a driveway or repair a roof or fix electrical problems. They say it won't cost much at all. And for some of the more fragile elderly victims, this may seem the only way to get such work done.

But Mylander said residents should request the work themselves and have it done by a licensed expert.

If someone offers to do air-conditioning work, for example, ask for their credentials, Mylander said. Get a name and phone number of someone else who has used their services. In essence, ask for information that will verify the subcontractor's legitimacy.

"A lot of times, if you take a few minutes, they won't stick around," the sheriff said. "You have to be on your guard at all times, and check these people out. If they're legit, they won't mind answering the questions.

"A little precaution on people's part will save a lot of heartache in the end."

Elderly residents should enter into contracts with subcontractors that spell out the terms and provide a workmanship guarantee, Mylander said. That documentation gives investigators something to back up any charges that might be brought against the individuals in an exploitation case.

"So many of these things are done without paper, and it's hard to prosecute in that case," the sheriff said. If they enter into a contract and the work turns out to be faulty, victims should not try to stop payment on checks.

Many times, those problems can be worked out in civil court, Mylander said. But stopping payment for work that has been legally contracted could backfire on people who think they have been victimized: They could be charged with defrauding a business.

"There are people out here who are legitimate who complaints are made about," Mylander said. "The thing really comes down to was it a mistake or was it something they had no control over? Was there an act of deceit? Was it intentional?"

Anyone with information about possible incidents of exploitation of the elderly should call the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, the Brooksville Police Department or the state attorney's office.

Common scams that hit homes

Asphalt driveway sealing/paving: Victims are approached door-to-door. Suspects offer to fix driveway, but inflate the price when the work is done. After often intimidating their victims into paying the higher price, the suspects cash the checks within minutes.

Roof sealing/shingle repair: Again, contact is made door-to-door. They spray roofs with oil or gasoline that has been mixed with latex paint. The substance is not fire retardant. It does nothing to prolong the life of the roof. It does not seal leaks. And though they may hammer for a while or dab asphalt around some pipes, they rarely replace shingles. They later charge a higher price than originally had been agreed upon.

House painting: Using cheap and watery paint, swindlers will do a shoddy job. However, they often have well-maintained equipment and vans that might suggest to would-be victims that they are reputable.

Lightning rods: Although the suspects often sell legitimate and safe lightning rods, they will intimidate victims into paying an exorbitant amount for the installation.

Source: State attorney's office, Sheriff's Office

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