Eerily, the scene unfolded just as the police had warned: A woman with a small girl in tow rang the doorbell at Claudia Winkler's home one recent afternoon. The woman was upset; her car had broken down. She pleaded with Winkler to let her in to use the telephone.
Winkler was polite but firm when she declined, and she suggested that the pair try a neighbor. From behind drawn shades, Winkler watched as the other homeowner also turned them down.
And then, similar to what Alexandria police had described just a week or so earlier at a training academy for city residents, the woman and girl walked to a parked vehicle, got in and drove away.
"So much for having a broken car," Winkler said, laughing as she recounted the incident.
The experience was surprising but not shocking, she said. "They do it in pairs so that while you're distracted with one, the other steals stuff from your rooms."
Indeed, Winkler said she was prepared for the scheme because she had recently attended a daylong workshop at Alexandria police headquarters in which officers dispensed crime prevention tips and other practical advice to a group of senior citizens.
At 78, Winkler knows now what to expect. The officers made clear what kinds of games criminals will play, she said.
"I paid attention to everything the police said because all of it was great and helpful," Winkler said. "A lot of the things they suggested, I already had done on my own, but now I'm more aware."
Twice a year, over 10 weeks, the department offers residents a chance to learn the intricacies of police work, from the methods of criminal investigations to the proper way to handle a firearm.
Winkler was among a group of seniors invited to a condensed version of the course that focused, for the first time, solely on fraud against the elderly and white collar crimes such as identify theft.
About three dozen seniors gathered in a windowless conference room at police headquarters on Eisenhower Avenue. Over coffee, pastries and sandwiches, they listened eagerly as officers talked about the force's administrative services, field operations, investigations and antiterrorism efforts. More useful, many participants said, were the sessions about common crimes and frauds aimed at older people.
"I learned many things that I didn't know before," said Solomon Wondemagegnew, 63. "I liked hearing about the police system and how to protect and save yourself, things like leaving your porch light on at night."
Sgt. Steven Carr of the white collar and computer crimes unit took the lectern to introduce the seniors to the tricks unscrupulous telemarketers use. His cell phone rang.
"Hello," Carr said, seemingly annoyed by the interruption.
"Hello, this is John Wayne III, grandson of the movie star," a husky male voice responded.
The seniors swiveled in their chairs, looking for the caller. In a corner stood Detective Charles Pak, a financial crimes investigator, grinning slyly.
"I'm collecting money today for the Feed the Hungry Foundation and can offer you three memberships: silver, gold and platinum," Pak said.
After listening to the spiel, Carr offered to donate $10.
"Well, I was thinking maybe a little more . . . like $1,500," Pak said.
The group laughed out loud.
After more prodding and listening to a speech about another charity that purports to create college funds for as little as pennies a day, Carr declined all offers.
"These guys are professionals," Carr said to the seniors after the skit ended. "They play and prey on feelings and can predict how a conversation will go. . . . But if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
Nationally, fraud-related crimes -- from telephone scams to identify theft -- are on the rise. In 2002, for example, more than 400,000 such crimes were reported, Pak said. Last year, the figure jumped to more than 600,000.
"Generally, seniors are not at risk for violent crimes but are at a high risk for fraud-related crimes," Pak said. "Seniors are usually on limited incomes, and so it's very important for you to not lose what money you have to these thieves."
If an identification card or Social Security number is stolen, for example, a thief can open new credit card accounts in the victim's name and obtain utility services and loans -- and ruin an elderly person's way of life and credit.
Winkler absorbed all the advice. She keeps close by a thick binder of information the police gave to workshop participants; it contains detailed information about the department's policies and procedures and measures residents can take to avoid becoming crime victims.
Ashley Coates attended the daylong session with about 20 others from St. Martin de Porres Senior Center on Taney Avenue. Coates, 84, said she went because she wanted to know how to protect herself.
"I found the police to be really approachable and friendly and really serious about keeping the community safe," she said. "I thought I was doing everything to keep myself safe, but I learned that there was a lot more I could do."
Sgt. Joe Watson had a captive audience when he spoke. He talked about the special operations division, the nine-member unit to which he is assigned, and the team's hazardous-materials searches, hostage situations and antiterrorism efforts.
He advised the group to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior and to never hesitate to call 911 if something appears out of place.
"If it makes the hair stand up on your back or your head, then call," Watson said. "It goes back to planning and exercising those plans. Always be prepared."
The group was equally hushed when Officer Charlette Mitchell-Young doled out safety tips: Keep emergency phone numbers nearby; set home alarms before going to bed; keep porch lights on; have someone pick up the mail when you're out of town.
Deputy Police Chief Earl Cook talked about the worsening problem of street gangs. "Believe it or not, being in a gang is not a crime," he told the participants, to a collective gasp.
The daylong police academy, designed to target specific aspects of the seniors' lives, was part of the department's ongoing efforts to engage the community and introduce residents to the force, Cook said later.
Sitting in a small room at St. Martin senior center, Bill Sun, a tall and slender man with a youthful air, said the information he learned at the academy is applicable to people of all ages.
"Everyone needs to know how to protect themselves, old and young, because more and more often these kinds of crimes occur," Sun, 76, said as he ticked off a list of the lessons he took to heart, including tips about credit card fraud and identity theft.
"The advice was very useful, and I understand I have to be more careful in my life," he said. "I've been very lucky because when I think back, there are lots of mistakes I have made, and I am very fortunate that I didn't become a victim."
Police said another session for seniors will be offered in spring.
"We had such a great turnout, and everyone seemed so appreciative of it," said Capt. John Crawford, a police spokesman.