Law enforcement officials regularly issue strong condemnations of the criminals they arrest. Even so, the level of outrage at a recent news conference in Alexandria was unusual.
Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, blasted the six people charged in an alleged scheme as "predators" who are "a menace to the community."
Arlington County Police Chief Doug Scott put it more bluntly: "This case truly disgusts me."
The objects of the official ire were suspects who allegedly defrauded seven victims, elderly women ranging in age from 79 to 88, of more than $100,000. The five men and one woman, all from the Culpeper area in central Virginia, are accused of posing as employees of legitimate home repair or tree service businesses. They would confuse or intimidate elderly women in the Washington area into paying for repairs that were not needed or never performed, officials said.
It was known, the indictment alleges, as "granny hunting" or "getting granny."
Officials said the hunt extended far beyond the victims referred to in the indictment filed June 22 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. McNulty said the suspects were part of a ring of more than 20 people who have victimized more than 100 elderly women during the past five years in Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg with this group," said Detective Kevin White, lead investigator for Arlington police, who are investigating the scams along with the FBI. More arrests and charges are possible, officials said.
The defendants have pleaded not guilty, and their trial is scheduled for Sept. 27. An attorney for the man identified in the indictment as the group's ringleader, Steven Butler, 20, did not return telephone calls.
To officials at AARP, the advocacy organization for older Americans, the scam had a depressingly familiar feel. They said frauds against the elderly have been an increasing concern for several decades, though the problem is hard to document statistically because older people often don't report being victimized. The elderly, AARP officials said, are often more vulnerable because they tend to be more trusting.
"They were raised in an environment and a culture where a handshake was good, where you could rely on nice, friendly people," said Sally Hurme, a lawyer with AARP's consumer protection unit. She said the method of the fraud alleged in the Alexandria case is "classic."
According to the indictment, the suspects would identify their victims through tactics such as following them home from shopping centers or cruising neighborhoods looking for cars bearing handicapped license plates. Sometimes, they would persuade victims to pay them for work that was not needed. Other times, they would charge much more than market value for work that was needed, do a shoddy job or trick the victims into paying several times for the same work.
In one instance, the indictment says, a victim identified as "Suzanne A." was duped into believing that her attic was infested with squirrels and that she needed to spend $2,500 for a "special squirrel spray."
The same woman then paid $2,000 more, believing her attic was infested with snakes. Even after she threatened to call the police, the indictment says, the group convinced her the attic had other unwanted guests.
She then spent $1,200 for "lizard spray."