An 88-year-old woman is getting her mail and walking back toward her house when a white van pulls into her driveway. Four men step out of the van and tell her they need to inspect the power lines in the alley, but must check the electricity inside the woman’s house first.
The men barge into the house and scatter in opposite directions, rifling through closets and drawers. Upstairs, the woman’s 91-year-old sister is flicking the light switches and turning on the faucets, before she realizes that the man pillaging her bedroom dresser is not from Commonwealth Edison. By the time both women realize the men are up to no good, they're gone—along with the women's cash, jewelry and other financial documents.
Unfortunately, the story you’ve just read is taken from Oak Lawn Police reports. Every year, hundreds of seniors become victims of ruse burglaries throughout the Chicago-metro area.
“I’m saddened,” Det. Tom Cronin said, senior liaison officer for the “These cases are tough on us. With warm weather, this is when they’re going to hit.”
While an increasing number of seniors are becoming web-savvy, there are still many who are not. Oak Lawn police hope that by publicizing some of the more frequent crimes against the elderly, younger family members can work with older loved ones to keep them from becoming victimized by ruse burglars and other scam artists that prey upon the elderly.
Ruse burglaries are atypical from the type of burglar that breaks into a business or residence when residents aren’t home or the business is closed.
These con artists generally tend to be more active in warmer months, when they are more likely to drive around neighborhoods looking for senior citizens outside their homes tending their gardens or working on the exterior of their houses.
They engage their elderly victims in conversation or make up some ruse that they’re from the water department or electric company and need to check something inside the house.
Working in groups, one ruse burglar will talk to the elderly victim, while their accomplices scatter through the house stealing valuables and cash. Often the items taken are irreplaceable, such as a grandmother's diamond ring, because of their sentimental value.
"One will take you into the basement and tell you to turn the faucets in the sink on and off, and the other will be upstairs ransacking the house," Det. Cronin said.
The detective advises anyone to lock the doors to the house when working or relaxing in the yard.
“Ruse burglars won’t break into a house that’s locked,” Cronin said. “They’re looking for an easy in and out. It’s a crime of opportunity. They’ll spend just three or four minutes inside after getting through an open door.”
These offenders will also pose as contractors, offering to do such work as driveway seal coating, tree trimming, roof or chimney repairs. While talking to victims, especially the elderly, they'll assess victims' mental capacities, quoting low or high estimates for contracted jobs depending on victims' mental state. When the "work" is completed, they will demand more money from the victim. The work is always substandard.
Cronin advises family members to “role play” and work out a plan with their elderly loved ones should ruse burglars come knocking on their doors pretending they’re to buy a car that isn't advertised for sale or check the gas meter.
“It’s important to publicize ruse burglaries,” Det. Cronin said. “They are out there by the hundreds scamming people.”
Senior Safety Tips for Preventing Ruse Burglaries
- Be aware of anyone coming to your door or approaching you for unsolicited business. Always keep the storm door knocked.
- When outside gardening, carry a house key in your pocket and keep the doors to the home locked. Have a cell phone handy to call 911 should suspicious persons approach you.
- Take note of any vehicles in the area—cars, vans, trucks—that are suspicious or seem out of place, particularly those with missing front and/or read license plates, or vehicles that appear to be in shabby conditions with identifying business markings on the sides.
- Request identification from the person who approaches and tell them you will verify any work to be conducted in the area with the police. “If they’re legit they will stand by while you call police and present credentials,” Det. Cronin said. “When the bad guys see that you’re calling police, they’ll leave.”
- Keep jewelry and other valuables and cash in a safe place, preferably a bank safety deposit box.
- Ruse burglars are usually non-violent, but don’t confront them. If they’re inside your house, get to a phone if you can and call 911. You don’t have to speak to the operator, just leave the phone off the hook.
- Most ruse burglars are only in the house for five minutes or less. If you can’t get to a phone, try to get a license plate number and note the direction the offenders leave in. Call 911 immediately after they leave so police have a better chase of nabbing them.
Det. Tom Cronin of the Oak Lawn Police Department is available to speak to senior groups on crime prevention and other safety tips. Contact Det. Cronin by email or by phone at 708-499-7845.
Residents can also sign up to receive ‘A Community United’ newsletter on the Village of Oak Lawn web site.