By Karen Zautyk
Last Thursday evening, as part of its rejuvenated Neighborhood Watch program, the Nutley Police Department held a meeting in Town Hall on identity theft and common phone, email and contractor scams. These are not, of course, limited to Nutley. Readers in all The Observer towns need to be aware of how they might become — and avoid becoming — a victim.
The session was so packed with information that we’re going to do a two -part story on what we learned. Next week, we’ll get to the hightech topics. But we’re going to start with the trickery that has been around the longest, pre-dating electronic scams by decades, and that is still going strong.
A few years ago, an elderly aunt who lived in an upscale N.J. suburb, fell victim. Our family learned about it after one of her neighbors called to report she had seen our aunt riding down the street in a pick-up truck, which was pretty strange. It turned out she was being driven to the bank by one of the “contractors” who was repairing her front stoop. The workers needed to be paid in cash, immediately, and she was happy to oblige.
By the time we learned what had happened, the “contractors” and the money were long gone. But the shoddy “repair” work — wrought-iron banisters replaced with unfinished wood planks (sticks, really) remained.
She had become the prey of the “Travelers.”
As Det. Tom Perrota of the Nutley PD Community Relations unit explained at last week’s meeting, the “Travelers” or “Gypsies” are masters of the home-repair scam. Now that spring is here, they’ll be fanning out from their home bases in the South and elsewhere, driving their pick-ups and trailers around the country, particularly targeting “the elderly, the disabled and those in need,” he said.
They cruise the streets, looking for homes in need of work — many of which are in that condition because the occupant is a senior citizen who is no longer able to do, or afford, repairs.
“They’ll pick out an old person’s home like that,” said the detective with a snap of his fingers. Sometimes they spot a walker in a window. But they can also guess an occupant’s likely age by the window itself — the kind of curtains or drapes hanging there. Their eye for detail is exceptional.
Next comes the knock at the door, along with a story about their having done some work in the neigborhood and just happening to have some materials left over.
They couldn’t help but notice that this house needed work on the driveway or the roof or the porch or whatever.
Or perhaps they’ll say that their company is offering a time-limited “special.”
These con artists will be glad to make the repairs then and there, at a discount. Provided they are paid in cash, then and there.
The gullible, trusting homeowner, happy to have one less repair to worry about, agrees. The workers go up to the roof and start hammering away — except they aren’t repairing anything, Perrota explained. “They’re just banging in nails.” The elderly mark isn’t about to climb up and check. He or she won’t find out they’ve been had until the next rain, when the roof still leaks.
The detective also showed photos of one case in which the scamsters had claimed to have replaced a roof. It certainly appeared brand new. Turns out, they had merely covered it with a coat of white paint. After a whole lot of hammering, of course.
“Repaving” a driveway is also a popular con, Perrota noted. The completed work looks pretty nifty (we know, because a friend in Nutley once fell for this one), except that the driveway “sealant” is actually oil and black paint. Comes the rain, and it washes away.
These are only two examples. The con artists can offer all sorts of repairs (such as our aunt’s front stoop). They might even approach you in a parking lot and offer to fix your dented car. Then and there. For cash, then and there.
“Think about it,” Perrota said. “Who fixes cars in a supermarket parking lot?”
The detective advises all — both old and young — to be wary and vigilant. In the case of home repairs, contract for no work unless the contractor can prove he is licensed. Besides, “no legitimate contractor is going to drive around looking for business,” Perrota warned.
The Travelers/Gypsies look like ordinary folk. They’re not driving caravans.
(Well, maybe someone has a Dodge.) But Perrota said there are a couple of tell-tale signs. White baby-booties hanging from the rear-view mirror of their truck or car is one clue. The other is a “Jesus fish” on the back.
Now, not every con artist decorates their vehicle this way. And certainly not every vehicle with booties or a “Jesus fish” belongs to a con artist. But you might keep your eye out in any case. Especially if the thing also bears an out-of-state plate.