Elderly should watch for paving scams

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WESTBROOK – If it weren’t for the quick thinking of a sharp-eyed manager at a Westbrook bank, a Windham man might have become the latest victim of a perennial problem that police say has cropped up again – the paving scam.

Windham Police Sgt. David Thomas said the man, a Barnes Road resident, agreed to employ what Thomas called “drive-by” pavers to do work on the victim’s driveway.

Before the man knew it, Thomas said, the paver was overcharging for the work.

“He ended up telling the man it (would cost) $8,000, well over what he thought,” Thomas said.

According to Westbrook Police Capt. Tom Roth, police get about six reports of contract scammers taking advantage of the elderly each summer, but there are likely far more occurrences than that.

“This time of year, it’s rampant,” Roth said.

And it’s not just a problem in Maine. A recent national study conducted by insurance carrier MetLife found that from April to June 2010, more than half of the reported cases of fraud against the elderly came from “strangers,” which the study categorizes as “home repairs scams, all phone scams, strangers, criminal (robbery, burglary).”

Frauds in that category reported in that time period alone, according to the study, cost seniors more than $7.6 million.

The Windham man, Thomas said, felt intimidated by the paver, and wrote a check that the paver then tried to cash at Bank of America in Westbrook. Thomas said a manager there spotted the check, the amount, and saw what it was for. She eventually contacted police, Thomas said.

T. J. Crawford, a spokesman for the bank, said the bank is always looking out for its customers, and the manager in this case was familiar enough with the customer to suspect something was wrong.

“Banking center associates are trained to look for anything out of the ordinary,” he said. “No one wants to see a member of the community taken advantage of.”

Police are still looking for the paver, who did not get his money, said Roth.

Roth said he happened upon a similar case last summer, in July, when while on patrol he discovered a man, Nicholas Zompa, 27, of Old Orchard Beach, on Pride Street with cans of driveway tar in an unmarked pickup truck.

Roth said he spoke to an elderly resident in the area, who said the man was offering services cheap, visiting some people several times trying to get hired to do work. Roth said an investigation connected Zompa to scams in Portland, Westbrook and Brunswick.

Police charged Zompa with a number of offenses, Roth said, but in the end Zompa paid a $350 fine on a single charge, failing to register with the state as a seller of home repair services, and wound up going free.

Roth said the itinerant pavers prey on the elderly.

“These people drive around, they look for areas where it seems like an older person lives there,” Roth said.

Eileen Whynot, a spokeswoman for the Southern Maine Area Agency on Aging, said contractor scams, along with charity and investment scams, are a common occurrence.

“The financial exploitation of the elderly is high in Maine,” she said.

Roth said even elderly victims who aren’t trusting enough to cough up excessive fees are often confronted by the scam artist, along with several “associates” to pressure victims.

“A lot of the times, (victims) are intimidated, and they pay,” Roth said.

Roth said many scammers also ask for money up front for materials.

“That should be a red flag to consumers,” he said.

Other common-sense advice applies, too, Roth said, like checking to see if the contractor is operating a named business, or just driving around in what looks like a personal vehicle.

There are, of course, plenty of legitimate paving companies in southern Maine. Residents can call the local chamber of commerce for information on pavers with good reputations. To further avoid scams, check out the information box accompanying this story.

The simplest advice to seniors of all, Thomas said, is also the most direct.

“If they feel uncomfortable, they should just call us,” he said.

Westbrook police said Nicholas Zompa was using this truck to
solicit paving services in Westbrook and other communities last
summer. Police cautioned seniors to watch out for anyone using a
truck like this to solicit work. (Courtesy photo)

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