The older you get, the harder the crooks go after your money
Fleecing men and women over sixty-five has grown into a 2.2 - billion - dollar racket in the U. S. and Canada. Here is why the quacks and con men are making a special pitch tor older people, and here, too, is how to spot some of the swindlers some of the time
UNCOUNTED THOUSANDS of Canadians and Americans approaching retirement and yearning for fresh surroundings and an escape from cold winters, are buying by mail order, for small monthly payments, what promoters glowingly describe as “estates.”
The ads these promoters run are studded with phrases like “golden future,” “a marvelous way of life,” “suburban living plus city conveniences,” “all-year sunshine,” “unsurpassed scenery and climate,” and “unmatched investment value.” There are, to be fair, honestly conceived communities, primarily for the retired, that are almost what is claimed.
But many others are a cruel form of larceny. Mail-order customers are now being sold, or have recently been sold, undrained Florida swamp, the lava-covered side of a Hawaiian volcano, and a slice of Arizona desert that is miles from water and gets hot enough to melt the rubber blades of windshield wipers. They have also been offered an impenetrable and uninhabitable tangle of Brazilian w'ilderness.
The misrepresentation of land is merely one phase of many in the burgeoning and often vicious industry of separating more and more of the aging and the aged from more and more of their money.
“Our senior citizens are being singled out as
victims by every type of gangster and racketeer,” says Quinn Tamm, of Washington, executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and a top authority on trends in crime.
So serious has the situation grown in the United States that the U. S. Senate’s special committee on aging, established in 1959 to study questions like pensions and medical care, this year for the first time felt impelled to hold hearings on “frauds and quackery affecting the older citizen.”
It was shocked and shaken hy the evidence of the procession of witnesses who appeared. Senator Pat McNamara, who presided, summed up the testimony with a statement that in the U. S., cheating the elderly is a two-billion-dollar-a-year racket.
The committee on aging, convinced of the need for drastic action, has appointed a subcommittee under Senator Harrison Williams to hold a nation-wide inquiry and to report on what can be done to curb frauds against the elderly. The inquiry will start soon.
Meanwhile, the same schemes devised to rook Americans are being used to rook Canadians, frequently by the same individuals. And Washington officials I’ve talked to expect that the Canadian Senate’s new committee on aging — which more or less resembles that of the U. S. — will eventually uncover in Canada a situation comparable to the one that exists south of the border. If they are right, crooks and quacks are extracting upwards of two
hundred million dollars a year from the aged and aging in Canada.
Cheating the old is, of course, not new. It has always gone on and always been a mean, contemptible variety of skulduggery. Why is it suddenly in the spotlight and causing such concern?
The answer is that people, particularly in countries like the U. S. and Canada, are living longer and retiring earlier. They are not retiring penniless, to be kept by relatives, as most of the old did in the past.. They are retiring with pensions and — the luckier of them — with savings. They have emerged as a whole new category of consumers. Because of this they have become, in the words of Senator Williams, “an increasingly attractive market for the modern pitchman interested only in quick profit or outright robbery.”
One indication of the growth in this market is provided by census figures. Between 1940 and I960 — census years in the U. S. — the number of Americans aged sixty-five or more jumped from 9,000,000 to 16,600,000. Between 1941 and 1961 — census years in Canada — the number of Canadians aged sixtyfive or more shot up from 767,000 to 1,391,000.
Apart from noting the statistics and the millions of monthly pension cheques that pour forth in the United States and Canada from governments and private insurance companies, the vultures have noted that the elderly tend
to be easy to pick clean simply because they are elderly.
Uke Ponce de León, they seek the Fountain of Youth — and the quest leads them into the claws of those who promise to make them look and feel younger. Old women deprive themselves of meals to buy fake beauty preparations and alleged wrinkle-removing contraptions, old men empty their pockets to buy useless nostrums and discredited “health foods.”
The old, both male and female, are beset by aches, pains, diseases and fears from which most of the young are spared. They enrich the quack with the “sure cure” for arthritis, although they know in their hearts that there is no sure cure. They also enrich the cancer quack, and the quack who says he can soften hardened arteries. Against the advice of their own physicians, they creak and groan to distant and dubious clinics that advertise miracles for sale.
They suffer from financial as well as physical desperation. When an old person’s retirement income is pathetically low, he is tempted to gamble on a proposition that seems to offer a disproportionate return for a tiny outlay, which is the fastest and most certain method of being robbed of a life’s savings.
And the old suffer from loneliness. The widows in their seventies and eighties who sign up for thousands of dollars’ worth of dancing lessons aren't comical. They are a tragic manifestation of the fact that between 1950 and I960 in the U. S., there was a fifty-percent increase in women seventy-five or older. There are now in the U. S. a hundred women in that age bracket to each seventy-four men. The ratio in Canada is not quite so unbalanced. But in Canada, as in the United States, women outlive men and in the larger cities^may — if heavy on cash and temporarily light on sense — fall prey to dancing-school gigolos. Ironically, plenty of old men are lonely too, and are clipped by “introduction bureaus.”
To cap it. all, the elderly — and the older they are the more this applies — can be as trusting as children. They’ve been honest so long themselves that they don’t recognize dishonesty in others.
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Health quacks are the cruelest con men: they make millions on "cures” that hardly ever cure
What’s being done to protect them? More than ever before. But no lawenforcement expert on either side of the international boundary line says it’s enough.
In the U. S., Postmaster General John Gronouski has assigned more inspectors to dig into frauds against the elderly and has demanded “the toughest possible crackdown on these swindlers.”
As the Senate subcommittee on frauds and the elderly sent out a squad of field investigators, the fraud section of the Department of Justice was busy obtaining a series of indictments against unscrupulous real-estate operators.
In a typical case three Miami men indicted in Phoenix, Arizona, sold three thousand persons what they advertised as developed “king-sized western estates” near Lake Mead. According to the indictment the land was wholly undeveloped and forty-eight miles from the lake.
In another case three Albuquerque, New Mexico, promoters sold thirtyfive thousand lots in the last two years using the “free lot” gimmick. In this racket sales booths are set up at exhibitions and fairs, and customers are induced to register for “free lots” under the impression they are participating in a lottery. Later they receive letters asking them for “closing costs” of about fifty dollars and trying to pressure them into acquiring additional lots at $495 each. These hucksters, calling themselves the Great Southwest Land Company, had a booth at the 1962 Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, and were attacked by the Toronto Better Business Bureau.
“In the past two years,” says Attorney General Robert Kennedy, “we have experienced a sharp increase in the sale by mail of nearly worthless land for greatly inflated prices.” Rio Grande Estates in New Mexico has been accused of buying arid mountain terrain assessed at eighty cents an acre and reselling it at $390 a lot. Profits of one thousand percent are common.
Among the witnesses at the hearings of the committee on aging was Fred Talley, state real estate commissioner of Arizona. He said Lake Mead Rancheros in his own bailiwick is perhaps the most widely advertised subdivision in the U. S. “Full-page ads are run all over the country,” he said. These promised complete utilities — roads, electricity, water, phones.
“Actually,” he declared, “there are no utilities available. Six miles from the nearest lot and ten or twelve miles from the principal part of the subdivision is a tank-operated coin machine where one can deposit a quarter and water runs out of an old inner tube. And the same distance away is a telephone line and power line running down the highway . . . Thousands upon thousands who are planning for the sunset years of their lives read this disgraceful advertising — they go for
the bait and never look for the hook.”
One estimate is that since 1962 the land phonies have collected from Americans at least five hundred million dollars for retirement properties entirely unsuitable for retirement.
What can be done to stop it? Talley's suggestion is that the Securities Exchange Act be amended to require the same investigation and public prospectus for interstate real-estate promotions as for securities and stocks. Ontario last July passed an amendment to its Real Estate and Brokers Progress Act that requires anyone proposing to sell land outside the province to an Ontario resident to file with its real-estate department a prospectus describing the land in full detail. If the department’s officials suspect that the land isn’t as good as the seller makes out — or that it doesn't exist — they send a man to look at it. If their suspicions are confirmed, they refuse to approve the sale and it's a criminal offense to sell without government approval. The department can't do much to police crooks who deal by mail from outside the province but it can check con men, like the gang in the Great Southwest Land Company, who operate inside Ontario.
One fake treated 10,000 patients
Yet, in the opinion of most experts, health quacks extract more money from the aged than any other group who victimize them. “Appeals to health and well-being directed to older people constitute one of the most widespread and insidious exploitations in our country today,” states Kenneth Willson, president of the National Better Business Bureau of the U. S. “In general the problem lies not so much in the advertising and sale of completely worthless products, because many have some limited or conditional value, but in extravagant and colorful claims that suggest that the offerings can do more than is scientifically justified.”
George Larrick, commissioner of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration, puts the spending on worthless or dangerous products or methods of treating disease at more than a billion dollars a year; a survey by the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation showed that arthritis sufferers are being duped out of $250 million annually; falsely promoted vitamins and health foods arc taking Americans for another $500 million a year. Thousands of arthritics were cheated on a drug called Tri-wonda, but the Food and Drug Administration, up against clever lawyers, had to work seven years to get the product off the market.
Larrick had a prominent role in a National Congress on Medical Quackery a few weeks ago, which was sponsored jointly by the FDA and the American Medical Association.
Displayed at this affair, which occupied a large section of one of Washington's leading hotels, was an incredible variety of fake medical devices. They included a colored light projector that one, Dinshah Ghadiali, used to treat ten thousand patients, before he was fined twenty thousand dollars and put on probation for five years. He claimed that the light rays, dif-
ferent colors for different ailments, would cure practically everything. Then there was Ferguson’s Zellet Applicator, a plastic dumbbell-like device containing two tubes of water and supposed to produce Z-rays, a force unknown to science. Thousands of people in the midwest paid fifty dollars each for the gadget.
There were bust developers that didn’t develop busts, reducing machines that wouldn’t reduce, a “radioclast” supposed to eliminate inflammation from the body. One gadget that sold for prices up to a thousand dollars was supposed to help diagnose a disease by analysing blood, but couldn’t distinguish between real blood and red-colored water.
Such are some of the items that the FDA has removed from the market — but the FDA and the American Medical Association know that the fight against quack devices is a ceaseless one. In the last year the FDA has seized quantities of fifty-four diagnostic and treatment implements, all dangerous or useless or both.
How can the elderly spot a quack?
The American Medical Association offers six helpful rules; a man is likely a quack if:
1. he uses a special or “secret” machine or formula that he claims can cure disease;
2. he guarantees a quick cure:
3. he advertises or uses case histories and testimonials to promote his cure;
4. he clamors constantly for medical investigation and recognition;
5. he claims medical men are persecuting him or are afraid of his competition;
6. he tells you that surgery or X rays will do more harm than good.
The AMA warns that there is no remedy that may be truthfully advertised as a cure for anemia, arthritis, rheumatism, baldness, cancer, diabetes, epilepsy; that the term “health food” is a misnomer because it implies curative properties; that hormones are too dangerous to be used except under the
supervision of a qualified physician: that no known preparation may be truthfully advertised as a cure for kidney disease: that the way to reduce is to cut your caloric intake: that it is untrue that everyone suffers from or is in danger of suffering from a deficiency of one or more vitamins: and that the best source of vitamins for most people is a balanced diet.
Ironically, while the AMA was issuing these warnings many of the individuals it charges with quackery were holding what they called the first National Congress on Health Monopoly. At this there were impassioned speeches accusing the AMA and the FDA of putting a straitjacket on healing skills. Dr. Curtis Wood, author of a book titled Overfed But Undernourished, defended health foods and vitamins; a Dr. George Crane put in a good word for Krcbiozen. which the FDA says has no properties that make it a cancer cure. The FDA and AMA countered by issuing a press release listing convictions in the courts against certain members of the National Health Federation. which sponsored the congress.
One of the warnings at the Congress on Medical Quackery came from the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation and was. in effect, a survey of arthritis clinics that advertise. It said: “All of the advertised clinics whose promotional material was reviewed for this study are dominated by chiropractors and naturopaths.” One of the clinics singled out for mention. Ball Clinic of Excelsior Springs, Missouri, advertises regularly in Canada. 1 have a sheet it put out in October 1952, in which it published the names of 936 Canadians it had treated until then.
I was in touch with its director by telephone the other day and he said, “we still have lots of people from Canada,” but he couldn't provide an up-to-date total. The Biscayne Arthritis Clinic at Miami likewise draws a substantial stream of customers from Canada. The Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation also blasted the “scare technique” used by these and four other clinics, referring to the columns of space devoted to crippling and suffering in their advertisements.
The scare technique is not the exclusive property of the clinics. It is used in many ways upon the aged. When alarm about fallout was high, sharpies made a killing in rural areas selling strainers they said would remove strontium-90 from well water. When fallout shelters were in the news, slick salesmen convinced hundreds of people, particularly the elderly. that they were government inspectors. and that it was compulsory to build a shelter. Two men took an eighty-year-old Hamilton, Ont., woman for $9,255 with this ruse.
Men of this type often pose as “inspectors” and persuade elderly people that their furnaces are dangerous or that their roofs or chimneys need fixing. In fact the roof-and-chimney racket is probably the most prevalent throughout North America, according to Better Business Bureaus on both sides of the boundary. Not long after four men conned an eighty-nine-yearold Texas woman out of four thousand dollars, two Toronto men parlayed a two-dollar job of cleaning leaves out of a seventy-three-year-old
woman’s eavestroughs into an attempt to swindle her out of $1,850 by almost identical methods.
After they had cleaned the eavestroughs (at a ridiculously low price) they informed her that she urgently needed a new roof, which would cost $1,100. When she resisted the offer, one of the men said casually that he hoped she had liability insurance on her chimney, which was in such bad condition that it could topple at any moment Alarmed, the woman signed up for a $750 chimney repair job.
Later when an ethical contractor examined the roof and chimney he reported: the roof needed minor repairs that should cost eighteen dollars; a good chimney repair (if it had been needed) should have cost $250, but this job was badly botched.
The ways of parting the elderly
and their cash, as detailed to the U. S. Senate committee on aging, are endless. In Chicago, a crooked firm sold an aged man two furnaces in two years, and in Fort Wayne a firm sold an elderly woman two furnaces in three years. In Missouri a retired physician paid a fake termite-control firm $1,750 for treating his house after being shown a piece of termiteinfested wood. He subsequently learned there were no termites to be treated. A fifty-eight-year-old widow in South Carolina with an income of $150 a month was high-pressured into a contract for aluminum siding at a cost of seventy dollars a month for eighty-four months. In Idaho, a salesman sold health and accident insurance that was never delivered, and an accomplice followed him around saying he was investigating the salesman,
and asking the buyers to give him their receipts — leaving them without proof of the money paid.
Recently, thousands of aged were swindled by a save-by-mail scheme in Maryland. The old have been skinned, too, by purchasing shares in cemetery land (the catch is that their investment doesn’t pay off until all shares are sold; by then most of the elderly shareholders are dead), and plain ordinary sea water with a promise of restored vitality. They’ve been conned by the tens of thousands into exchanging good securities for bad.
Often they fall for skin games in which the attraction is part-time work at home to enable them to augment small incomes. An aged widow, for instance, may be persuaded to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a sewing machine, on the assurance of a
dishonest salesman that his company will provide her with garments to sew and that she will recoup the price of the machine in a month. This gimmick has been tried all over Canada and the United States. A variation is to offer an old invalid a part-time job addressing envelopes at home — this to get him to buy a list of names.
But there is no nastier a specimen than the “inspector” who goes around bullying the recipients of old-age pensions into the belief that they have been overpaid by error and must rebate part of their cheques — to him.
All these prize characters are reasons why the U. S. Senate’s committee on aging has set up its subcommittee to hold a nation-wide inquiry. Information that will help Canada combat the same forms of skulduggery is bound to come out of the inquiry. ★