Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart is alerting senior citizens and their families of a roving suburban scam that finds middle-aged women earning the trust of vulnerable older men and then draining them of tens of thousands of dollars.
Sheriff’s investigators and senior citizen advocacy groups have noted an increase in calls about the “sweetheart scams,” especially in the southwest suburbs. Members of the same ring of suspects have targeted older, single men at the grocery store, neighborhood diner, bowling alley and even as they do yard work outside their home. Those involved in the scams are well known to local law enforcement from other con games and financial schemes they’ve been suspected of carrying out throughout the suburbs for years. In some cases, officers are now seeing the children of those previously arrested involved in identical scams.
In the latest ruse, it usually takes days of surveillance by members of the crew before a middle-aged woman approaches the man and engages in friendly conversation. That conversation then leads to lunches or “dates” where the men are seduced and led to believe a relationship is blossoming. That’s when the woman begins to describe the heartache of a troubling financial situation – a relative’s need for surgery, a child’s inability to complete college because of tuition bills or other emotional situations tied to money.
“That’s when the kind-hearted man says not to worry about it and writes the first check to her,” Dart said. “Then, there’s another traumatic incident where someone needs money. Then there’s another. And another. These people are like vampires – they absolutely will not stop until he is drained of everything. Then they move on. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.” Complicating matters for investigators, however, is the reluctance of victims to file a complaint with police – either due to embarrassment or because they are firmly convinced that the woman was indeed a “girlfriend” and will someday pay back the cash.
Investigators find the men to be alert and of sound mind, who willingly give the women the money, making it difficult to prove that a crime has occurred.
In one situation brought to police attention by a family, an elderly suburban man helped a woman pay off court-ordered restitution from a similar scam she was convicted of carrying out in another state. In another, a suburban man had given away nearly $400,000.
The scams came to Sheriff Dart’s attention through the community-based work done by his Senior Citizens Academy and his police department’s Financial Crimes and Public Corruption Unit. Both agencies have started joint monthly meetings with leaders of suburban senior centers and advocacy groups, where they discuss seasonal safety tips, share information on crime trends and scams, raise concerns and outline steps seniors can take to avoid exploitation. The “sweetheart scams” came to light as a result of their meeting with caseworkers with the Palos Heights-based PLOWS Council on Aging.
“These sweethearts aren’t going away,” said PLOWS’s Velencia Myton. “Their bold craft of seduction and exploitation of older men is their livelihood and is passed on from mother to daughter.”
Investigators know of a handful of these cases brought to them in recent months, but due to the reluctance of many victims to come forward, it’s not known if the scams are more wide-spread. Sheriff Dart warned seniors to be wary of younger women introducing themselves in search of friendship and then aggressively advancing the relationship and asking for financial help. Families of widowed seniors should be mindful of new relationships a loved one starts with a younger woman who seems to be quickly earning his trust.
“The only way these things usually end is when families get involved,” Dart said, “and by then, it’s usually too late and all of his money is gone.”
Anyone with concerns or information about the scams can contact the Cook County Sheriff’s Financial Crimes and Public Corruption Unit at 708-865-5188. Anyone interested in information from, or a presentation by, the Senior Citizens Academy can call 773-674-7725.