SALT LAKE CITY — One of the Utah victims of a direct mail scam run from a mailbox at a Park City store that bilked hundreds of people nationwide out of $1.8 million was 91 years old.
And it is the trusting nature of some senior citizens that has law enforcers and advocacy groups warning about the ways scammers prey on the elderly.
Daron Howell Fordham, of Las Vegas, preyed on older Americans with promises of big money through a "direct partner program" called "Paul Park's Profit Program."
Fordham's mailers induced people to send money to the mailbox at a UPS Store in Park City with fraudulent claims and guarantees, including offers for a 976 percent return or more in less than 90 days without doing any work.
"He's an aggressive mailer of crazy incentives," said U.S. Attorney John Huber, adding investigators don't believe Fordham ever set foot in Utah.
Federal agents shut down what Huber called a "fraud factory" in a Las Vegas apartment last fall but not before at least 1,693 people across the country, many elderly and disabled, fell for the scam. Utah victims were taken for $203,866. Huber said Fordham raked in the money basically $100 at a time.
Often trusting, lonely or scared, older people are prime targets for fraud and elder abuse. Crooks know that they read their "junk mail" and they have money, Huber said.
An estimated $3 billion a year is stolen from older Americans through financial investment schemes, grandparent scams, fake prizes, romance scams and fraudulent IRS refunds, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Even as law enforcement takes aim at fraudsters, it can't root out every scam, especially ones that originate overseas or keep moving and changing names as Fordham did.
"It's a tough battle," said Jared Bingham, U.S. Postal Inspector team leader. "It hasn't gotten any better. It's gotten worse."
Utah Adult Protective Services investigated more than 5,300 referrals of elder abuse, including 2,600 cases of financial exploitation in the past year, the fastest growing allegation it deals with, said Nan Mendenhall, agency director.
Most of the perpetrators are family members who liquidate a parent's or grandparent's assets or transfer money to their own accounts.
"Usually the victims are unaware what's going on until we bring it to their attention," she said. "Once we do, they're very embarrassed. They don't know what to do. They don't want to send their loved ones to jail."
Adult Protective Services has an e-book available for download online to help people over 55 know their rights.
Alan Ormsby, Utah director of AARP, said older people who get scammed are often in a "heightened emotional state." They're sometimes elated to receive an investment offer in the mail or terrified that something will happen to them if they don't respond, he said.
Ormsby recommends not engaging in conversation with telemarketers but immediately hang up the phone.
"Every single moment you're on the call with them, they're collecting information about you," he said. "They're collecting information on how to scam you, re-scam you and how to scam you again."
AARP has website, fraudwatchnetwork.org, and telephone number, 877-908-3360, where people can get information about potential scams.
Fordham — also known as Southboy, Daron Destiny, Paul Park, James Parker, Daron Howell and Darren Fordham — might have gotten away with the scam had federal investigators not received a tip about the mailers and started digging. He frequently changed company names and locations to stay under the radar.
"We were lucky," Bingham said, adding one sign of possible fraud is the amount of mail going into a private mailbox account. "From there, it's chasing the ghost."
One mailer read: "All you have to do is invest in the printing and mailing of our hot-selling FREE CRUISE FOR TWO VOUCHERS (like the one included with this letter) that are used by businesses all across the country. WE DO ALL THE WORK! You decide how many Mailing Spots you want now and you'll receive your Principal Check and PROFIT Check in less than 90 days. Trust me. You'll be upset if you miss this one."
Fordham, 50, allegedly told investors they could invest $500 and get a "whopping gross return of $5,570 with $5,070 of it being PURE PROFIT FOR You."
Prosecutors listed six Utah victims, ranging in age from 65 to 91, in the indictment against Fordham. He admitted to six counts of mail fraud in a plea agreement that includes an agreed-upon six-year prison sentence.