Laurel seniors join police for coffee and crime prevention

By Caitlin Moran
The Gazette
Thursday, December 3, 2009

Stella McDonnell knows not to give out her credit card or bank account information over the phone without verifying the identity of the caller. That's why the West Laurel senior citizen ignored a number of voicemails saying there was something wrong with her account last summer.

"You just don't give out random information," said McDonnell, who declined to give her age. "It could be anybody on that telephone."

But when her account statement showed $3,000 charged at a Fuddruckers restaurant in California, McDonnell realized someone had stolen her credit card information and that the voicemails were in fact from the bank.

McDonnell said her experience was one reason she joined a new group that establishes a working relationship between senior citizens and the Prince George's County Police Department's community-based police officers.

She was one of about 15 Laurel area seniors who attended a Nov. 19 crime-prevention seminar with the Community Oriented Policing Services District 6 unit. The workshop, which took place at the Phelps Senior Center in Laurel, marked the second meeting of the C.O.P.S. Senior Coffee Club.

The partnership between police and the seniors stemmed from another community policing program. Sgt. Tina Blackistone said District 6 decided to reach out to Laurel area seniors because they can be especially helpful with deterring and reporting neighborhood crime.

"They're the ones who are home," Blackistone said. "They have a huge impact, especially in the Laurel and Beltsville areas."

The next meeting, set for 1 p.m. Thursday at the Phelps Center, will include a discussion on how to avoid becoming a crime victim while shopping. The group plans to meet every other Thursday for the foreseeable future. Although most of the members are seniors, the group is open to all residents.

South Laurel resident Garold Stone, 63, said the meetings are useful for seniors and a good way for police to get tips and information to the community.

"It's a mutually beneficial process," he said. "The seniors are showing that this is useful and interesting, and hopefully they'll tell their friends."

The last session focused on credit card and identity theft. Cpl. James Woody discussed ways to avoid becoming a victim, such as shredding financial documents and buying a locking mailbox.

Identity theft "can be a major headache, and it's a very traumatizing event," he said.

Blackistone also shared a personal experience with identity theft. She was shopping at a Giant supermarket with her daughter and had her purse in her cart. When she walked away to grab an item and her daughter turned her back from the cart, someone stole her wallet from the top of her purse.

By the time she made it to the checkout, the man had used her card to purchase more than $1,000 in gift cards at a CVS.

"Before I even went to pay, he had already gotten what he needed to get," Blackistone said.

After attending the C.O.P.S. meeting, McDonnell said she plans to check her account statements more regularly so she can act more quickly if someone steals her information again.

"Some things are so common-sense, but you don't think about them till after," she said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company