Monday, July 24, 2006

Saying Goodbye to an Elder Champion

When Bruce Coleman retires from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the end of the month, it will be a tremendous loss for American elders and their advocates. As coordinator of “Project Emptor,” a position he’s held since 2004, Bruce has helped countless victims and “would be” victims of telemarketing fraud. Project Emptor, as in caveat emptor, Latin for "buyer beware," intercepts packages and mail that contain “bait letters” from telemarketers and checks or money orders from victims. It’s not the first time Bruce has retired. He left the RCMP in 2000 after 27½ years and returned to the Commercial Crime unit after a short stint at Workers’ Compensation.

In the last two years, he and his colleagues have intercepted in excess of $2 million: 80% of the victims are American, and the rest are from the UK. That’s just a fraction of the money crossing the border though—about half of one percent is Bruce’s guess.

He has some interesting observations about victims and abusers:

“Victims tend to be elders facing the onslaught of old age and possibly, early stage dementias. I’m not an expert, but you can tell from talking to them that they’ve lost the ability to rationalize or make good decisions based on the facts before them. Most can’t assess risk. Even after getting checks returned with warnings, some victims continue to send money, partly because they’ve previously invested so heavily in the scam.”

“We had one case involving a woman who’s a multimillionaire, whose daughter obtained guardianship and used it to protect the older woman’s money. But now the mother is “smurfing,” money laundering, for the bad guys. She accepts money from other old people, deposits it into a bank account or buys bank drafts in amounts under $10,000 to avoid the reporting threshold, and sends them to Canada.”

“When I ask some elderly victims ‘Are you going to remember that we talked?’ a lot of them say ‘no.’ So I tell them to write notes to themselves that say, “No more money to Canada” and put them next to their phones along with my card.”

When it’s clear that an elder is on a downward spiral, he tries to talk them into calling their families, or calls himself. “These families aren’t dealing proactively with their parents’ aging. Often, they’re not aware of what mum or dad are doing or that they’re having problems. They haven’t arranged for co-signatories on bank accounts, powers of attorney, home care and social visits. Many, many seniors are very lonely, and the criminals prey on them."

“The perpetrators are ruthless. We can’t say how much of this activity is related to terrorism, but there are certainly links to organized crime. Most of the perpetrators are involved in cells and are highly organized with hierarchical organizational structures. They use drug addicts as runners. People don’t realize that once victims give up money transfer control or reference numbers from Western Union or MoneyGram purchases or wire transfers, the cash can be picked up anywhere in the world."

With hundreds of cases, Bruce has to get in and out fast, which is why he tries to hand off cases to American law enforcement and social services for follow up. “Reporting to local police is like confession or a reality check. It helps victims come to grips with the devastation.” He has harsh words for social service providers who refuse to get involved. ”If you get a referral from someone who’s lost thousands of dollars or is at risk, don’t argue that the person doesn’t meet your criteria or mandate. Step up! At least call and offer help. Leave a phone number.”

On his good guy list are the Canada Border Services (customs), courier companies and retail mail outlets, which have provided excellent cooperation to the RCMP and are largely responsible for identifying victims.

In spite of the fact that co-workers call him Robin Hood and American colleagues refer to him as Uncle Bruce, he remains modest. “I’m the conduit of others' good work.” He admits though that since starting the program, he’s never received so many thank-you cards.

Will he miss the work? “No,” he says. After 30 plus years in law enforcement, he’s ready for a break and isn’t considering a third career. He will miss the elders he’s met though, who include schoolteachers, people in the armaments industry and NASA, dentists, doctors, rocket engineers, and World War II vets.

We will miss him.

1 comment:

Dr Josh Burdett said...

In addition to the points you make, Elders may make ideal smurfs (from the criminal perspective) because they are unlikely to raise the suspicion of Front Line bank employees. Particularly when the Elders are well known to the employees.