BRADENTON -- Todd Kelley, 22, and Dale Lucas, 25, recently walked the streets of Bradenton dressed in collared shirts and khaki pants and represented themselves as young men who were authorized to sell cruise packages on behalf of an Internet site.
The Bradenton Police Department alleges the pair were really in the business
of charming victims out of their cash while providing nothing in return.
If proven in court, Kelley and Lucas are far from alone. The Manatee County Sheriff's Office and Bradenton Police Department expect roughly 2,500 cases of fraud this year in Manatee County.
"Right now we are getting Boston scams," said Dave Bristow, a Manatee County Sheriff's Office spokesman. "Believe it or not, people are calling our elderly citizens saying they are collecting funds for the victims of the Boston bombing. We are discovering these are scams. The calls are not coming from Manatee, which makes it hard for us to combat."Scams, as varied as they are numerous, often target the vulnerable elderly, said Capt. Warren Merriman of the BPD, which arrested Kelley and apprehended Lucas with help from out-of-state law enforcement.
"Scam artists can be very manipulating and convincing," Merriman said.
Scammers use the phone, e-mails and even snail mail to con victims, Merriman said.
A common annual con involves taking cash up front for home improvements such as roofs, windows and porches and disappearing.
A phone call favorite is to entice a credit card payment for "taxes" on a promised "huge sweepstakes check" in the mail from Canada.
Faux proposals often touch the heart by saying loved ones are in danger or in need of assistance.
"They call grandpa in Manatee saying they are the grandson and need money wired to them to get out of jail," Bristow said. "They make hundreds of calls until they find a person who fits their scam. Believe it or not, people do go to their banks and wire money in these cases."
Bristow and Merriman would not speculate how much money will be scammed. But Bristow said it will be in the thousands, especially when welfare checks and federal government food cards are factored in.
"And many of these scams are not reported to us because the victims are embarrassed," Bristow said.
"Routinely, we will get complaints from senior citizens about someone calling them with a foreign accent, requesting money be sent overseas in exchange for a check," Merriman said. "It all falls under scam, which is a consistent crime that occurs year-round."
Fraud up in Manatee
MSO crime analyst Carolyn Arbogast studies statistics on fraud and scams.
Her records show 10,158 scams perpetrated against residents in unincorporated Manatee County in the five years between 2008 and 2012.
That figure does not include the town of Longboat Key and the cities of Bradenton, Palmetto, Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach, Arbogast said. She said statistics on scams in Manatee's municipalities were not immediately available, but several officials judged it would add 500 to the annual average.
"We had a low in 2010 and it does appear to be on the rise," Arbogast said of scams. "In 2012 there was an 11 percent increase over 2011."
There were 1,985 scams in 2011 and 2,208 in 2012, according to Arbogast.
Five months in to 2013 the scam trend is downward, officials say, in part because of their education efforts n tipping the public off about scams.
"It's on the decline because we have been proactive," Arbogast said.
For example, Bradenton police encourage residents sign up for an e-mail service called NIXLE, which sends out scam alerts, Merriman said.
"It's kind of like Twitter," Merriman said. "We put out routine crime prevention notices when we are made aware of scams."
Police recommend common sense tactics to prevent being scammed.
"Don't give out any personal information on yourself on the phone or over the Internet to someone you have not contacted," Bristow said. "Don't ever give money up front. Beware of sweepstakes claims. When it comes to home repairs, make sure you have a contract. Legitimate contractors don't take money up front."
In the scam business, one axiom always holds true.
"If it sounds too good to be true, it is." Bristow said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, Ext. 6686.