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Elder fraud: A couple’s losses, hard lessons

Posted: July 2, 2012 5:55 a.m.
Updated: July 2, 2012 5:55 a.m.

In this April 19 photo, Miriam Parker and her daughter Donna stand in the dining room of her Raleigh, N.C., home. Donna Parker and her siblings struggled for nearly seven years to extricate her parents from the clutches of an international sweepstakes scam.

 

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — With their elderly parents seated across the octagonal oak table, Donna and Jim Parker were back in the kitchen they knew so well — the hutch along one wall crammed with plates, bells and salt-and-pepper shakers picked up during family trips.

It was Christmastime, but this was no holiday gathering. Now, it was the parents who were in deep trouble, and this was an intervention.

For the past year, Charles and Miriam Parker, both 81, had been in the thrall of an international sweepstakes scam. The retired educators, with a half-dozen college degrees between them, had lost tens of thousands of dollars.

Their four children were worried, but had been powerless to open their parents’ eyes. Maybe, Donna Parker thought, they’d listen to people with badges.

And so, joining them at the family table that late-December day in 2005 were Special Agent Joan Fleming of the FBI and David Evers, an investigator from the North Carolina attorney general’s telemarketing fraud unit.

The home was littered with sweepstakes mailers and “claim” forms, the cupboards bare of just about everything but canned soup, bread and crackers. Charles Parker acknowledged that he’d lost a lot of money, but expressed confidence that he and his wife would eventually succeed if they just kept “investing.”

With the couple’s permission, Evers installed a “mooch line” on the kitchen phone so they could capture incoming calls. The Parkers pledged their cooperation.

The Parkers were hardly unsophisticated people, the type to be easily fooled.

Born in 1924, Charles Alexander Parker and Miriam Wilkinson were high school sweethearts back in Pitman, N.J.

Charles earned a doctorate in speech communications, and Miriam received a pair of master’s degrees, one in special education. Along the way, Miriam gave birth to four children: Donna, Jim, Linda and Carole

Charles Parker took a position in the English department at North Carolina State in Raleigh, from which he would eventually retire. Through hard work and thrift, the Parkers were able to send all four children to college and pay off their home.

Then the conman entered their lives.

Older Americans lose $2.9 billion a year to fraud, according to a study last year by the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. Most victims are between 80 and 89, and most are women.

The elderly are susceptible to errors in judgment, particularly in situations where a snap decision is required — such as during a telemarketing call.

“Experience teaches us that those with mild dementia tend to be the most vulnerable,” wrote Kirkman, an assistant attorney general in North Carolina, and Templeton, a gerontologist.

The Mayo Clinic defines “mild cognitive impairment” as an “intermediate stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more pronounced decline of dementia.”

Somehow, the couple ended up on what people in the industry call the “sucker list.”

Then the scammers proceeded to “reload” them.

You’ve won this multimillion-dollar lottery, they’d say. All you need to do is send us money to cover taxes, and we’ll send you your prize.

So on Dec. 8, 2004, Miriam Parker — then 80 — drove herself to the Wal-Mart down the road to send a MoneyGram to Montreal, Quebec.

Isolation from absent children is often a hallmark in cases like this. But that wasn’t so with the Parkers. Sure, Jim had settled in Ohio, and Carole was living in Florida. But Linda and Donna were both just down the road in Cary.

A busy real estate agent and teacher, Donna — the eldest — popped in as often as she could.

But Howard Clark had learned enough personal information about Miriam to convince her that he was the family’s ticket to riches.

By May 2005, the Parkers had blown through their savings. They had tapped into their home equity line and had maxed out several credit cards.

Howard told Miriam that she’d been “hired” by the Canadian sweepstakes company.

On May 5, 2005, a package from Bloomingdale, N.J., containing $8,275 in cash arrived at the Parkers’ home. Others followed.

Sometimes, there would be two stacks of bills tucked into magazines. The smaller pile was Miriam Parker’s “commission.”

Howard said she wasn’t to tell her children about their dealings. But the kids had already become alarmed by changes in their mother’s behavior.

When the children finally persuaded their mother to get a credit report, the news was jaw-dropping. Their thrifty parents were nearly $200,000 in debt.

Donna Parker went to the state Attorney General’s Elder Fraud Unit.

In April 2006, Jim Parker and his wife Susan came to town. They were sitting in his parents’ kitchen when the doorbell rang.

The FedEx driver handed Jim a crinkly envelope. He knew without opening it what was inside and turned it over to Kirkman, manager of the Elder Fraud Prevention Project in the AG’s office.

When authorities opened the envelope, they found it contained $5,725 in cash from a Visalia, Calif., widow.

That’s when state and federal authorities reached out to their counterparts north of the border.

On Aug. 2, 2006, officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Surete du Quebec paid a visit to Dave Stewart.

The Jamaican native acknowledged accepting numerous packages from the American lady on behalf of a man whom he knew as “Roger.”

Professing ignorance of any illegal activity, Stewart agreed to cooperate.

Howard, meanwhile, gave Miriam a new address to which she should forward items.

The FBI determined the pitch calls were coming from Montreal, and Mounties soon had a real name for “Howard Clark” — he was Clayton Atkinson, who had 13 convictions for assault, theft and weapons possession.

On April 13, 2007, officers from the RCMP raided Atkinson’s apartment and caught him with the “pitch phone” in his hand.

In Raleigh, a federal grand jury handed up a 35-count indictment against Atkinson and two co-defendants — Dave Stewart and Jamaal McKenzie, aka “Joseph Reid.” The three were charged with one count each of conspiracy and interstate transportation of stolen property, seven counts of wire fraud and 26 counts of mail fraud.

Even then, the trouble wasn’t finished for the Parkers.

A Western Union office called Donna to say her parents had been in a couple of times in one day to wire money to “relatives” in Jamaica.

In May 2008 Donna Parker filed a petition, and the court appointed local attorney David T. Watters guardian ad litem. The Parkers were “charming and personable,” but hopelessly blind to their predicament, he wrote to the court.

The court appointed Donna Parker guardian of their estate.

The criminal case ground slowly along, and last year Atkinson and Stewart pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy and mail fraud. (McKenzie is awaiting trial in Canada on an unrelated assault charge.)

When Atkinson appeared for sentencing at U.S. District Court in Raleigh on March 15, Miriam and Donna Parker were there. Charles Parker had died just a month earlier.

When the time came for victim impact statements, Donna Parker rose. She told Judge Terrence W. Boyle of having to take her parents to court, and of the lingering resentment it had caused.

Boyle sentenced Atkinson to 12½ years in prison, Stewart to 6½. He also ordered them to pay $840,705 in restitution — $84,350 of it

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