WILMINGTON — When roofer Michael Escalera went to a 78-year-old man’s home Thursday, ready to do roof repairs for the 11th time since June, he found Wilmington police detectives waiting to charge him with taking $63,836 for work that was “unnecessary … minimal and substandard” and sometimes not even finished. Police also charged Escalera, of Boone with scamming the man’s 81-year-old neighbors, saying he went to them eight times and collected $25,650. Detectives handcuffed Escalera a few weeks after a state task force that includes Wilmington officers was formed to target home-repair scams. Protecting seniors is especially difficult, Attorney General Roy Cooper said Friday. “It takes someone pretty low to take advantage of seniors,” Cooper said, but there are “a lot of scam artists out there” who are willing to do it. In Wilmington, police said it was a caring bank employee who alerted them that checks were repeatedly clearing the man’s account for work on the house. Cooper said bankers are one of the lines of defense against the rip-offs, along with children, neighbors and friends who can watch out for seniors. “It’s an involvement issue by people who know the senior,” he said. Wilmington police lodged 57 charges against Escalera, including 19 counts each of obtaining property by false pretense, exploiting the trust of a disabled or elderly person and conspiracy. Magistrates set Escalera’s bail at $1.2 million. The conspiracy charges come from what Lt. Steve Murphy said was Escalera’s work with four men who are named in the warrants. Cooper’s office warned the public in 2013 that complaint about roofing scams were rising. In August 2011, an alert from the state to local law enforcement agencies said members of a home-repair ring were “up to their old tricks” after being broken up in the 1990s. In the case of the Wilmington’s elders, Murphy said, Escalera went to their door saying he had noticed work that needed to be done, then returned again and again. “They build a relationship, and they keep coming back to that well,” Murphy said. “They befriend you.” Scammers “endear themselves” to their victims, Murphy said. “These older people trust these guys.” Cooper said three factors help make elderly residents especially vulnerable. For starters, they tend to come from a time when people could be more trusting, he said. Seniors also have been savers and often have money for repairs, Cooper said, and they sometimes have health issues that make them easy marks. The Wilmington man Escalera is accused of bilking has Parkinson’s disease and limited mobility that kept him from being able to check on the work. His neighbors also “suffer health issues that limit their mobility,” the arrest warrants said. Especially galling, Murphy said, is that scammers “are taking money that these people are counting on for retirement.” “The money is gone,” he said, and there is seldom if ever a chance of getting restitution if suspects are convicted.
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