Angelina Di Fazio thought she would find a quieter and more relaxing lifestyle in North Idaho.
Having traveled abroad for the last 25 years as a humanitarian worker in postwar countries such as Bosnia to help run refugee camps, Di Fazio, 64, decided to return stateside to settle down for a few years. As a sailboating enthusiast, she fell in love with the lake and last autumn bought a blue, Victorian-style home a few blocks north of downtown Coeur d’Alene.
“It seemed a dream come true,” the single 64-year-old said.
However, her happiness was short-lived.
The day before Christmas, Di Fazio found a leaking pipe in the cellar. She called a plumber, who told her a 100-year-old elm tree’s roots were wrapped around the pipes and would need to be dug up. Before long, the homeowner had paid more than $4,400. She was left with a heavily damaged alley driveway, which later collapsed and rendered her garage unusable for the winter, an unsolved plumbing problem and an estimate of an additional $13,100 to finish the the work.
It turns out Di Fazio’s problems were twofold: the former owner and seller had paid for some root removal services, but allegedly neglected to disclose it in the contract. And secondly, she claims the plumbing contractors were trying to take advantage of the situation. Di Fazio sought other estimates, each of which came back much lower, and finally, with the help of her real estate agent, Di Fazio found an excavation company that repaired the damage and unfinished work, without felling trees or tearing up her backyard, for $3,400. But her problems are far from over.
“I never imagined that I would be a victim,” Di Fazio said while sitting on her sundrenched back porch, just a few feet away from the old elm tree and the fresh earthen scars beneath it that mark the length of her yard. “I thought I was going to have some quality of life here, but that was stolen from me. I work all the time.”
While Di Fazio’s situation is unfortunate, it’s not unique, according to John Corcoran, executive director of ElderHelp of North Idaho, a nonprofit group dedicated to assisting the elderly in everyday matters such as home repairs, yard cleanup and providing split wood for stoves.
“We’re here to support the elderly in any way we can,” Corcoran said, adding that ElderHelp maintains a list of certified professionals the elderly can draw from in finding everything from plumbers to electricians to attorneys.
Regrettably, Corcoran added, that has meant helping more seniors who have become victims of scams, from home repair issues similar to Di Fazio’s to identity theft. In the wake of a recent newspaper report, the group has heard of a handful of other individuals with stories of unscrupulous companies and individuals deceiving the most vulnerable age groups.
Senior scams “never really surfaced until February,” Corcoran said, adding that most of the roughly 350 ElderHelp clients rely on the wood the group delivers for their stoves. But, he continued, “the need is there, I’d call it an epidemic – these people living off fixed incomes” who are the targets of fraud.
There are numerous schemes aimed directly at defrauding senior citizens, according to the FBI’s Web site on elderly fraud. They range from health insurance fraud to counterfeit prescription drugs to the rising trend of Internet fraud, such as the “Nigerian Letter” con through spammed e-mail messages.
Of the fraud schemes, identity theft is the No. 1 consumer complaint received by the Federal Trade Commission. According to a report issued by the FTC, there were more than 300,000 instances of identity theft in 2008, which made up 26 percent of all consumer complaints. As many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year, according to an estimate on the FTC Web site.
Corcoran of ElderHelp said the ailing economy may be partly to blame.
“I think the economy is creating these kinds of scams, and I think we will see more,” he said. Senior citizens, he added, “they are vulnerable, that’s the sad part.”
Besides ElderHelp, there are several other groups and companies helping to raise the alarm on people who prey on the elderly. The Washington Credit Union League’s Tomorrow’s Leaders Council recently rolled out a program to identify and prevent financial abuse of vulnerable adults – especially elderly adults – to all of the state’s credit unions and several outside agencies, including ElderHelp.
In addition to local credit unions, the Financial Elder Abuse Prevention Project teaches elderly caregivers, family members and senior citizen-associated groups how to spot warning signs of suspected fraud, such as large and unexpected bank withdrawals, with an emphasis on home repair schemes. It also covers what other forms it can take, what a credit union can do if financial abuse is suspected, and the protections afforded credit unions for reporting suspected elder financial abuse.
Winnie Hillock, director of education at Horizon Credit Union in Spokane Valley and a member of the project, said the Washington Credit Union League “realized the need for the program was more apparent, so we started presenting it outside the credit unions.”
However, for Coeur d’Alene resident Di Fazio, she hopes her story might at least serve as a warning to others. Her advice?
“Find a broker-slash-agent who will back you up in times of trouble and never select workers or contractors without references from people you trust,” she offered, adding that ElderHelp did supply a list of referrals including lawyers that work pro bono, which she might follow up on. “I’m feeling very disheartened by it all. It’s been such a roller coaster.”
Now, instead of remodeling parts of her home or adding another bathroom as originally planned, she’s working three jobs to pay off the more than $14,400 debt. What’s made it even worse is trying to find a job matching her skill set as a health care management professional, which she said has been difficult given her age.
While boating on the lake was once a long-held dream of hers, it’s been replaced by another: retirement.
“This is not the happy life I envisioned when relocating to Coeur d’Alene…Your gender and age make you a prime target for victimization, and trust me, you will feel very, very alone when this happens,” she said “I can only hope that this account will warn others to beware, be suspicious and be wise.”