By C.V. Moore
OAK HILL —
R. Booth Goodwin hopes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The U.S. Attorney stopped in Oak Hill on Thursday to talk to seniors about what they can do to protect themselves from financial scams and what he says is an increasing number of drug-related home invasions targeting the elderly.
“I think federal prosecutors have to be as much about preventing crime as prosecuting crime,” says Goodwin, who has also spoken to seniors in Nicholas and Summers counties about what they can do to avoid being victims of crime.
The kinds of crime Goodwin highlights might not be as familiar to a generation that left doors unlocked, relied on face-to-face interaction to see through phonies, and didn’t have to worry about the pills in their own medicine cabinet.
As area seniors sipped mid-morning coffee at Fayette Senior Services, Goodwin spoke of an elderly Huntington man who called his office in a panic, believing he was about to be prosecuted for crimes in a foreign land.
Someone claiming to be a lawyer in Malaysia called the man, asking for money and promising to help him claim an inheritance. But when he stopped sending checks, the “lawyer” began threatening to take him to court.
All told, the senior sent $120,000 — his entire life’s savings — to the scammer.
“Needless to say, I’d like to prosecute that gentleman over in Malaysia to the fullest extent of the law...but when someone is hiding behind multiple e-mail addresses in a far-away land ... its next to impossible for me to do anything about that,” says Goodwin.
“The only thing I can do for that man and others who are targeted by these criminals is to get out and talk about things you can do to prevent yourself from becoming victims of these schemes.”
Evelyn Hooper, 89, of Page, nodded. She says she often receives deceitful phone calls at home, but she has a simple solution.
“They could be giving away $1 million, but I just tell them ‘No’ and hang up,” she says.
If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, Goodwin advises on his tip sheet for seniors.
Scammers play on their victims’ sympathies, even posing as a grandchild stuck in a foreign country and in need of money, for example.
Suzette Hardy, a volunteer at Fayette Senior Services, says she can see why such a tactic might succeed.
“Here, the people are so lonely,” she says. “How often do friends and family come by? Not often enough. They lack social stimulation. They crave it.
“If you’re nice to them, they will do anything for you.”
With abuse of prescription drugs at epidemic levels in West Virginia, the face of drug-related crime here is changing, says Goodwin. More and more, home invasions and robberies are the result of prescription drug addiction, as addicts seek access to pills and the money to buy them in their neighbors’ homes.
Seniors become targets of this kind of crime because they often have medications in their homes and they are less able to defend themselves.
Among Thursday’s Fayette County audience, one Oak Hill man had twice been victim of a violent home invasion, though he preferred not to discuss the upsetting incidents. A coordinator at the senior facility says she knows of at least three such occurrences among the center’s regulars. And just that morning, a 70-year-old woman in Dothan was the victim of a break-in.
“I can remember days when we didn’t lock our doors,” says Goodwin. “We could trust we would be safe. But sadly, for much of West Virginia, that’s just changed. And it’s hard to adjust to the idea that a stranger on your doorstep might be there to do something very bad.”
He advises seniors to get rid of excess medication through special prescription drug take-back programs. One such program recently netted two tons of pills.
Other tips include keeping information about use of painkillers private, eliminating hiding places around the outside of one’s home, and investing in good locks on doors and windows.
In some cases, southern West Virginia's seniors themselves are turning to drug dealing as a way to supplement income.
“We just prosecuted a grandma in Wyoming County who is serving 70 months in prison for selling pills,” says Goodwin. “Drug dealers don’t look the same. The sources of supply are so varied, and can include your own medicine cabinet, your friends. It’s a much different drug problem than we’ve seen before.”
He says his office has prosecuted 200 prescription drug dealers in the last two years; shut down “pill mills” catering to addicts; and prosecuted “a handful of rotten doctors” who ease access to the substances in addiction-wracked communities.
“We absolutely have to win this fight,” he says. “We are losing a generation and if we don’t do something about it, we will quickly lose another.”