As a group of mostly senior women recounted how strangers have attempted to bilk them of their money–sometimes successfully–representatives from local and state law enforcement agencies emphasized the importance of listening to their instincts to avoid being conned.

“People want to try and take advantage of people,” Lizveth Mendez, a community liaison for the Illinois Attorney General’s office said.

Mendez and Forest Park Sgt. Steve Zanoni met with more than a dozen area residents last week as part of an occasional series aimed at helping people avoid the traps laid by scam artists. For roughly an hour, Mendez and Zanoni spelled out tips on how to spot a swindler and in the event the con is successful, how to report the crime.

In 2006, almost 33,000 complaints of identity theft and consumer fraud were fielded by the attorney general’s office, an increase of more than 18 percent over the previous year. In Forest Park, more than a dozen cases of identity theft have been reported since the start of 2007, mostly by retailers who become suspicious of a credit card purchase, according to Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas.

Despite this surge in the number of cases reported to the state, Zanoni said one of the biggest hurdles in catching the culprits is encouraging victims to come forward. Prior to earning the rank of sergeant in Forest Park, Zanoni was a detective who focused on investigating scam artists. Too often, he said, people feel foolish and never report the incident.

“A lot of times with seniors, they’re afraid to report it,” Zanoni said. “They’re embarrassed.”

One Forest Park woman who attended the seminar said she’s still paying large sums of money every month to undo the damage of a 2003 incident involving a charming young woman. The scam likely involved several weeks of surveillance, Mendez said after hearing the victim’s story, and targeted social security payments that were mailed to the victim’s home.

“My checks are deposited directly to the bank now,” said the victim, who asked not to be identified.

According to Mendez, social security payments are a favorite target for con artists and should be deposited directly into a bank account whenever possible. Also, any organization that asks to confirm personal information over the phone or via e-mail is not a legitimate outfit. Written correspondence is the only way that debt collectors, banks, government agencies and other credible organizations will transact business.

“Nobody is ever going to call you to confirm your information,” Mendez said. “They’re going to send you a bill. They have your information.”

Attorney General consumer protection hotlines

Identity Theft: 1-866-999-5630
Consumer Fraud: 1-800-386-5438 (Chicago office)
Senior Fraud:
Healthcare Bureau: 1-877-305-5145
Do Not Call Registry: 1-888-382-1222

Further information on these services and how to protect yourself are available on the Web at