Touring troupe, helpline spotlight senior-targeted scams

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By Ed Karvoski Jr., Culture Editor

Senior Fraud Helpline volunteer and Fraud Squad Players spokesperson Les Holmes
Senior Fraud Helpline volunteer and Fraud Squad Players spokesperson Les Holmes
Photos/submitted

Worcester County – For some volunteers, “RSVP” stands for more than “repondez s’il vous plait.” It’s also an acronym for the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program. Among the projects of RSVP Worcester Area Volunteers (WAV) are the Senior Fraud Helpline and the Fraud Squad Players, a troupe of performers age 55 and over who travel throughout Worcester County.

Particularly appreciating the volunteers’ efforts is Rita Sullivan. She has served since 2008 as RSVP WAV’s community liaison and special projects coordinator.

“It’s really incredible how these people give so much of themselves,” she said. “They attend trainings and practice the skits. They do it all as volunteers – and they do it very well.”

The nonprofit organization RSVP WAV is part of the Senior Corps program, operating nationally under the Corporation for National and Community Service. Sponsored locally by Family Services of Central Massachusetts, RSVP WAV rents office space on the third floor of the Worcester Senior Center.

The Fraud Squad Players debuted in 2016 by reenacting a “romance scam” at the senior center’s Valentine’s Day party. A skit titled “Mountain Cowboy,” written by RSVP WAV Director Barbara Drapos, chronicled a smooth-talking man swindling $10,000 from an unsuspecting woman. The performers were introduced onto the stage by Sullivan.

“The actors came up behind me, so I had no choice other than back up and sit on the stage,” she recounted. “I sat there onstage and saw the faces of the people in the audience. They were hanging on every word.”

Previously, RSVP WAV had offered a speaker with a slide presentation to educate the public on scams targeting the senior population. Now, volunteers perform with the Fraud Squad Players at senior centers, housing authority facilities, retirement and assisted-living residences, and various organizations including men’s and women’s clubs.

“It’s interactive,” Sullivan said of the players’ performance. “People watch a scam reenacted right in front of them. You’ll hear people in the audience yelling, ‘Hang up the phone, he’s lying!’ People remember more because they’re a part of the action.”

Twenty-eight volunteers currently participate in the Fraud Squad Players. Six or seven volunteers perform in each approximately 45-minute show with typically three skits. Afterward, they distribute material about scams.

“After the program we ask if anyone would like to share,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes it’s the first time people have talked about being scammed because they feel like they were stupid. The Fraud Squad Players is a peer-compassionate group. There’s no embarrassment or fear of loss of independence. We’re there to listen. People do open up to us.”

As the troupe traveled for several months, it became apparent that another resource was needed. In October 2017, RSVP WAV established the Senior Fraud Helpline: 1-800-297-9760, toll free in Worcester County. Volunteers answer calls weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Messages left afterward are returned the following weekday morning. Expanded hours are expected in the future.

The volunteers undergo a five-day training process led by experts representing the offices of the Massachusetts attorney general, department of revenue, Worcester County district attorney, and businesses such as banks and telephone operations.

“During the training, the volunteers have the opportunity to role play, which is important so that they feel comfortable on the phone,” Sullivan said. “For the helpline we went to every police department, library, senior center and town hall with fliers and little magnets so that people would become aware of us. The magnets say, ‘In doubt? Check it out!’ That’s the bottom line.”

Organizations interested in scheduling the Fraud Squad Players can call Rita Sullivan at 508-791-7787. For more information about RSVP WAV, visit rsvpworcester.org, fscm.org/r-s-v-p and facebook.com/RSVPWorcesterVolunteers.