Boston — She lives alone -- an elderly, retired college professor who made the mistake of trusting an unscrupulous, smooth- talking insurance agent back in 1971 -- an error that cost her $40,000 over the next seven years in worthless health insurance.
She is not alone. Federal officials estimate that several million elderly Americans fall for fraud schemes ranging from land deals and "lonely hearts clubs" to miracle cures and work-at-home schemes.
And, they say, the business is booming at more than $1 billion a year.
Although fraud has been around as long as there has been swampland to sell, the US government has only recently begun to zero in on the swindling of older Americans, which the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) says is the No. 1 problem facing senior citizens nationwide.
As part of a recent crackdown on defrauding of the elderly -- which falls largely under mail fraud statutes -- the US Postal Inspection Service is currently conducting nearly 50 investigations across the country. Among the cases concluded in recent months are:
* Insurance fraud. In Springfield, Mass., investigators found that 100 elderly persons, including the retired professor mentioned above, were bilked of thousands of dollars in an operation which one insurance agent confessed was "like taking candy from a baby."
Five insurance agents, who have all pleaded guilty in the case and are awaiting sentencing, sold their victims as many as 20 needless or worthless insurance policies -- pocketing premiums of between $5,000 and $9,000 a year per customer.
* Property fraud. When two Kansas real estate developers put up lake resort lots for sale -- land they didn't own -- they got approximately 1,000 takers and December of mail fraud, were mainly retired or living on fixed incomes.
* Lonely hearts club schemes. A husband-and-wife team operating out of Rickman, Tenn., was arrested in early March for placing fraudulent mail-order advertisements -- promising companionship for the elderly -- in pen-pal magazines.
According to the postal inspector in Chattanooga, Tenn., 10 senior citizens sent in between $60 and $450 to cover food and transportation costs for individuals who would then visit each respondent -- and who never showed up.
* Work-at-home deals. A Syracuse, N.Y., man was found guilty of 34 counts of mail fraud last October after offering to set up customers in their own mail-order businesses.
For investments averaging several hundred dollars, victims -- who were mainly older persons -- were given circulars, envelopes, and a mail-order list which were guaranteed to earn them a minimum of $1,000 within 30 days. Most of those who bought into the plan lost virtually everything they invested.
Until last October -- when the Postal Service pinpointed the elderly, disadvantaged, and minorities as priority groups -- mail fraud cases had not been broken down into "target victims." Under the new system, 18 consumer specialists have been placed around the country to field complaints on fraud cases. In addition, the US House Select Committee on the Aging, which held a hearing last fall on fraud of the elderly, is planning a series of similar hearings this year and next.
Although elderly persons are by no means the only victims of fraud, postal investigators say, they are particularly easy targets because they often have concerns that can be preyed upon, such as worries about ill health or being a burden on their families. And because they frequently live on fixed incomes, they are more likely to fall for get-rich-quick investment schemes.
Postal investigators, Committee on the Aging staff members, and the AARP say they hope the Postal Service's new thrust will at least alert senior citizens to be on their guard.
"A lot of our biggest frauds involve small amounts of money sent in by a lot of people. A person could make thousands of dollars that way," says George Sunderland, director of crime prevention for the AARP. "But the problem is, who's going to report a $3 loss?"