Correction: The date of the next Hellertown Block Watch will be June 25, 2012. An earlier published version of this story incorrectly listed it as June 27.
A guest presenter from the Pennsylvania State Police's Organized Crime Unit and advance publicity helped draw a sizable crowd to the April 25 meeting of the Hellertown Block Watch.
The public meeting, which was held at Borough Hall, was attended by several dozen local residents and led by borough police officer Tim Piotrowski.
Trooper Kelly W. Pearson, who specializes in the investigation of crimes committed by transient groups, was the guest speaker.
With 23 years of experience to his credit, Pearson said his investigations of transient criminals who often target the elderly have been the most challenging.
One of the challenges, he said, is that older people are sometimes less inclined to report crimes against them out of fear of losing their independence.
"I hope you don't feel bad if you become a victim," he said to members of the audience, many of whom were senior citizens.
As part of his presentation, Pearson played a video clip from 6ABC Action News in Philadelphia, in which a 90-year-old man victimized by transient criminals was interviewed.
The man became a victim after he was targeted by "door-knocker" scam artists posing as water authority workers. After he was knocked down in his basement, he was robbed of cash and left shaken and bruised.
"Do the right move and call the police if this happens to you," Pearson urged.
In general, he said, there are two major organized groups of transient criminals: gypsies and travelers.
Both groups are known to perpetrate various types of scams, including "sweetheart swindles" and "imposter burglaries."
In sweetheart swindles, an older man or woman is typically approached by an attractive, younger member of the opposite sex, and conned into giving away money or expensive gifts. In commiting imposter burglaries, Pearson said, transient criminals will pose as utility workers, tree trimmers, metal scrappers, fence installers or other tradespeople in order to gain access to a victim's home.
A typical crime committed by gypsies is a driveway sealcoating scam, in which inferior materials are used and exorbitant prices are charged.
Pearson showed still photos taken during an investigation his team conducted in Trumbauersville, Bucks County, where elderly residents were targeted by gypsies who had traveled north from Philadelphia.
Often of Eastern European descent, gypsies will typically scout out an area before going door-to-door, in order to ascertain where vulnerable residents may be living.
"Some neighborhoods look older than others. They know that," Pearson said.
In some cases, the crooks may sit in front of a bank or store, wait until an elderly person emerges alone and then follow him home, he added.
"The dads teach the sons the trades," Pearson said. "The gypsy culture sticks together."
Similarly, the so-called "travelers" of Irish, English and Scottish heritage are organized into tightly-knit groups, he explained.
Both gypsies and travelers typically avoid the use of weapons because they don't want to draw attention to themselves, and they primarily target cash and jewelry kept in people's homes.
Pearson encouraged everyone present to keep an eye on unusual activity in their neighborhoods, and to call 911 if they observe something they feel is suspicious.
"Nobody's going to be mad if it doesn't turn out with an arrest or something," he said.
Piotrowski also drove home that point by discussing an incident that occurred in the borough's Mountainview section last year.
In that incident, he said, an elderly man was targeted by men posing as roofing contractors.
The men knew of the resident's penchant for beer, and after taking him to buy a case, got him "a little under the weather," Piotrowski said.
While the man was inebriated, he was taken to his bank and convinced to withdraw $8,000, with which the scammers made off.
"All you have to do is call (the police) if you're not sure (about someone)," Piotrowski advised attendees. "Check it out. You could save yourself a lot of headaches."
Pearson added that the Pennsylvania Attorney General Office's website can also be a helpful resource.
The office staffs an Elder Abuse Hotline at 1-866-623-2137 and provides online information about protecting older Pennsylvanians.
The next Hellertown Block Watch meeting will be held June 25 at 7pm.