21, 2007 04:30 AM
The thieves operated from small offices in
Toronto and hangar-size rooms in India. Every night, working from
lists, they called World War II veterans, retired teachers and
thousands of other elderly Americans and posed as government and
insurance workers updating their files.
Then, the criminals emptied their victims'
Richard Guthrie, a 92-year-old U.S. Army
veteran, was one of those victims. He ended up on scam artists' lists
because his name, like millions of others, was sold by large companies
to telemarketing criminals, who then turned to major banks to steal
his life's savings.
The Iowa resident had entered a few
sweepstakes that caused his name to be added to a database advertised
by InfoUSA, a major compiler of consumer information. InfoUSA sold
data on elderly Americans to known lawbreakers, regulators say.
InfoUSA advertised lists of "Elderly
Opportunity Seekers," 3.3 million elders "looking for ways to make
money," and "Suffering Seniors," 4.7 million people with cancer or
Alzheimer's disease. "Oldies but Goodies" contained 500,000 gamblers
over 55, for 8.5 cents apiece. One list said: "These people are
gullible. They want to believe that their luck can change."
As Guthrie sat home alone – surrounded by his
Purple Heart medal, photos of eight children and mementos of a wife
buried nine years earlier – the telephone rang day and night.
"I loved getting those calls," he said in an
interview. "Since my wife passed away, I don't have many people to
talk with. I didn't even know they were stealing from me until
everything was gone."
Telemarketing fraud, once limited to
small-time thieves, has become a global enterprise preying upon
millions every year, authorities say. Vast databases sold to thieves
have put almost anyone within reach of fraudulent telemarketers. And
major banks have made it possible for criminals to dip into victims'
accounts without authorization, say court records.
"Only one kind of customer wants to buy lists
of seniors interested in lotteries and sweepstakes: criminals," RCMP
Sgt. Yves Leblanc said.
"If someone advertises a list by saying it
contains gullible or elderly people, it's like putting out a sign
saying `Thieves welcome here.'"
Two teams of Mounties have been posted to
Toronto to investigate this case and other commercial crimes.
The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the
thieves who build a relationship and end up tapping their bank
accounts and trust funds," Sgt. Michele Paradis said yesterday.
"The elderly get less social interaction, so
if someone will build up a relationship with them, they will gain
Scam artists stole more than $100,000 from
Guthrie, his family says. How they took much of it is unclear, because
Guthrie's memory is faulty and many financial records are incomplete.
His bank, Wachovia, said in a statement that
it had honoured all requests for refunds and was co-operating with
Guthrie, however, says thieves should never
have gained access to his funds in the first place.
"I can't understand why they were allowed
inside my account," he said."I just chatted with this woman for a few
minutes, and the next thing I knew, they took everything I had."
Investigators suspect Guthrie's name first
appeared on a scam list around 2002, after he filled out a few contest
entries that asked about his buying habits and other personal
The retired farmer had lived alone since his
wife died, confined to home by painful arthritis. He spent mornings
organizing the mail, filling out sweepstakes entries and listening to
big-band albums as he chatted with telemarketers.
InfoUSA maintains records on 210 million
Americans, according to its website. In 2006, it collected more than
$430 million from clients like Reader's Digest, Publishers
Clearinghouse and Condé Nast.
But InfoUSA has also sold lists to a variety
of marketers with more dubious intentions, including World Marketing
Service, a company that a U.S. judge shut down in 2003 for running a