In 1989, the Florida Legislature ordered a task force to be formed to report on crime and the elderly. The Attorney General’s Task force on Crimes and the Elderly, chaired by Attorney General Bob Butterworth, held a number of public meetings around the state and invited discussion from many seniors. The Task Force found that seniors were being targeted for scams, were being subjected to high-pressure tactics by salespersons, and were being deceived by false advertising at an alarming frequency.
Following the Task Force’s report, Attorney General Butterworth elected to conduct a survey of Florida seniors from throughout the state to determine just how prevalent were scams and deceptive practices towards seniors. Three members of his staff, Rodney Doss, Margaret Boeth and Jack Norris contacted Sheriffs, Chiefs of Police, and Area Agencies on Aging to ask for help in locating seniors who would be willing to participate in a formal survey. Mr. Vern Thornton, who had served on the Task Force as a consultant with the AARP Criminal Justice Services, began his involvement at this time.
A group of seniors was identified for the study. Each senior was asked to log all door-to-door sales pitches, telemarketing calls and unsolicited sales pitches made to them over a 30-day period. Log sheets were supplied to each senior to document this information. They were also asked to save all of their junk mail received over the same time frame and forward it to the Attorney General’s Office. Senior volunteers involved with this project were referred to as “Senior Spotters”.
The Attorney General’s Office was able to bring suit against a number of companies for deceptive trade practices and a number of cases were referred to the State Attorney for criminal prosecutions as a result of the leads prompted by the survey information.
The Attorney General’s Office recognized that senior citizens were very willing to assist law enforcement in combating crimes that were being perpetrated against them. There was considerable value to having seniors participate in their own protection but first they had to be educated in crime prevention so they could protect themselves from becoming victims. As stated by Attorney General Butterworth, "With Florida’s explosive growth and the increase in age of our state’s population have come criminal behavior directed against our senior citizens. Perhaps even more important than the raw numbers is the psychological and emotional impact of crime on our older citizens…. As we educate law enforcement, social services, judiciary, and other elements of our society, it is critical that we also educate our senior citizens.”
Vern Thornton presented the Attorney General with a crime prevention program, to be run by volunteers and designed with Florida’s senior population in mind. The program would be called the Seniors vs. Crime Project.
The Seniors vs. Crime Project was sponsored by the Attorney General as a way to reinforce the message of crime prevention and to provide methods by which Florida’s senior population could be alerted to consumer fraud, con games, and other criminal acts. Vern Thornton was installed as the Executive Director of the Project and was responsible for the daily operations.
The purpose of the Project, when initiated, was twofold. First, it would offer crime prevention seminars to Florida's elderly. Second, it would provide comprehensive training for law enforcement officers and other criminal justice practitioners in understanding how the aging population impacts upon the role of police and other criminal justice professionals.
The Project was initially active in 5 counties on the East Coast and had approximately 300 volunteers. Volunteer local Coordinators were identified to assist in recruiting new volunteers and to help in presenting crime prevention talks to senior groups.
As law enforcement became more involved in presenting crime prevention programs to seniors the Project began to make more use of its senior volunteers. Volunteers, now called Senior Sleuths at the suggestion of the Attorney General, became more active in assisting law enforcement. Sleuths would act as the eyes and ears of the Attorney General’s Office by reporting on scams, and conducting surveys as requested.
Examples of work performed by Senior Sleuths range from checking on scanner prices at supermarkets and counting pills when picking up prescription medications to performing undercover stings that captured salespeople utilizing high pressure sales techniques and engaging in false and deceptive practices.
The states first Office operation was opened in Delray Beach in 2001 as a pilot project to assess the need for a walk-in facility for seniors. The concept was to allow seniors to talk to a peer if they felt that a business or individual had victimized them, economically. Senior Sleuth volunteers would staff the Office and assist the complainants in resolving their complaints.
The Office concept proved to be a resounding success, returning in excess $1 million to seniors in a little over one year of operation. In addition, senior sleuths uncovered a travel scam that victimized dozens of seniors. Based on their investigation of senior complaints, criminal charges were filed against the travel company and state regulators closed down the company.
Based on this outstanding success, Offices are now being opened on a routine basis throughout the state. Seniors vs. Crime is partnering with police and Sheriff’s departments in many counties to provide seniors with direct help that was previously unavailable to most citizens. Offices will continue to emerge as a positive means to help seniors combat fraud, high-pressure sales tactics, deceptive advertising and outright criminal conduct.
What started as a fairly small organization, primarily on the East Coast, has now grown statewide with over 2,000 Senior Sleuths. New Sleuths are being added to the roster daily and new ways to get them involved in assisting other seniors are being explored. While methods used by the Project may change over the years the goal will remain the same-prevent victimization and provide a way for seniors to contribute to the safety of all Floridians.
"The Seniors vs. Crime Project does not offer or provide legal services or legal representation. Any response provided is not legal advice, is not a definite statement of the law, and is not a complete analysis of this area of inquiry."
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