Distraction Thefts Target Seniors

By Ron Fanfair, Toronto Police Service Published: 1:27 p.m. January 27, 2014

In the wake of a rash of distraction thefts against elderly women, Janet Sherbanowski is concerned her 92-year-old mother could be a target.

A woman stands beside a Canadian flag
Janet Sherbanowski

She refuses to leave her six rings at home when she’s in public.

“My mom has shrunk with age and she is not as strong as she used to be,” Sherbanowski said. “Yet, she refuses to take off her wedding and engagement rings, one she got from her mother and a few others. Besides the sentimental value, the irreplaceable jewelry is of economic value.”

Sherbanowski is the executive director of the Crime Prevention Association of Toronto, a community-based group that assists and empowers neighbourhoods, businesses and individuals to take action to reduce crime.

“We are aware of cases where the fraudsters would approach the seniors, gave them a big hug and tell them they are so cute and adorable and how much they remind them of their mother,” she said. “By the time they realize what’s going on, they are relieved of their valuables… We need to counsel them about strangers approaching and touching them. Elderly people long for that human connection and, as such, they are very vulnerable to the crooks.”

Last September, police warned the public about distraction thefts, primarily in the city’s west end.

The recent occurrences are in  32, 33, 42, 43, 54 and 55 Divisions.

“A lot of them involve seniors who are out shovelling their driveways,” said S/Sgt. Karen Smythe of Communications Services. “In a lot of cases, the victim is hugged by the suspect. All involve a theft of jewelry with great sentimental and economic value.”

Const. Pat Fleischmann, the Service’s Vulnerable Persons co-ordinator, explained why seniors are often targeted.

“They are more likely to live alone, they may be widowed, socially isolated, and lonely and thus seen as more vulnerable,” she said. “Older adults are more accessible in that they are retired or housebound, perhaps. It’s possible as well that they may suffer from impaired cognition or judgment which places them at greater risk of victimization. Seniors are of a generation that is generally more cooperative and trusting to others. Being retired, they are believed to have financial means. They are often reluctant to report crimes for fear of being seen as gullible or incapable. Because of these issues, there is a perceived susceptibility.”

A woman speaks into a microphone
Constable Patricia Fleischmann talks about senior issues during a radio interview

Fleischmann provided some tips for seniors.

“If a stranger suddenly and unexpectedly moves towards you in a public area and tries to point something out to you or distract you in any way, quickly scan the area before getting involved with this person,” she said. “Check your surroundings constantly and at all times be aware of what is going on around you… Be wary if a stranger approaches you, engages in a conversation and then attempts to get physical with you by touching hugging or hand-holding. Do not let your defences down, even if the person you are conversing with is female or has children in tow. This is another strategy for getting people to be more comfortable in that situation. 

“In all such circumstances, exercise caution by ensuring your personal jewelry is safely secured and, as much as possible, out of sight. Criminals engaging in distraction thefts have the same dedication and commitment to their trade as we do. The difference is that their job is to get our property. Our loss is their financial gain.”

Victims and witnesses can phone police at 416-808-2222 or report crimes anonymously to Crime Stoppers at 416-222-TIPS (8477), online at  222tips.com, text TOR and your message to CRIMES (274637), or Leave A Tip on Facebook.

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