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Cops warn of ‘Sweetheart Scams’ targeting elderly men, their money

Venus Sirchie leaves her home Worth last month. | Art Vassy~Sun-Times Media

Venus Sirchie leaves her home in Worth last month. | Art Vassy~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 18, 2011 12:15AM

“I handled it,” the woman said. “Nobody’s ripping nobody off.”

A gentleman friend had given Venus Mary Sirchie $23,500 to pay her property taxes and fix up her house in Worth within weeks of meeting her in a south suburban Wal-Mart.

“Not like there was a love affair or anything like that,” Sirchie said. “Told him I needed my loan or I was going to lose my house.”

A loan is what Sirchie calls the money, to be paid back in full by September. A shame is what the elder advocates who tried to intervene on the 80-year-old man’s behalf call it. His family can’t believe it’s not a crime. For the friend himself, a widower of almost a decade, it’s a headache. To investigating police, it’s an unfortunate trend.

For Sirchie, it might be a living.

“Sweetheart, we’re Romanian gypsies,” she said over the telephone.

“I’ve been doing this all my life. I’ll show you how to do it.”

Local and county police say they already know how she and other women they believe are cheerfully separating elderly men from their money work:

Stake out places popular among lonely older men: breakfast diners, bowling alleys, the Wal-Mart.

Bump into one who turns up alone.

Ask a few pertinent questions to pinpoint his marital status, living situation.

Befriend him. Pay him wanted attention. Show a little skin — just a little. Maybe smooch.

Then make your problems his: Your taxes are due. Your house needs repairing. Or is it your car? Both. And your daughter needs surgery on her heart, she’s in the hospital, she could die.

Pretty soon, like within weeks, money starts changing hands, said Sgt. Jim Hennelly, who investigates financial crimes for the Cook County sheriff’s police.

He’s talked to relatives of a few elderly men, and to the men who’ve handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars to younger, sudden lady friends.

One south suburban man, age 90, gave a woman $400,000. The opening line that caught him, Hennelly said, “Do you think these are real or fake?” Another in his 80s handed over $175,000, Hennelly said.

Neither man wanted to pursue any case. One was terribly embarrassed; the other insisted to Hennelly that the woman was his girlfriend.

“They refuse to prosecute,” Hennelly said. “These people do them for a living.”

Hennelly and caseworkers from the PLOWS Council on Aging, a nonprofit partially funded by the state and federal government, call the situation a “Sweetheart Scam” and want to warn folks, especially in the south suburbs, against walking into such a relationship blind.

Hennelly’s unit knows how to handle a different kind of recent episode involving elderly victims, because those are definitely crimes. They are “entry ruse” thefts, and the homeowners always opt to prosecute because they feel violated after someone has fast-talked his way into their homes before stealing their valuables.

But should a widowed gentleman feel any regret after a lovely lady wheedles a fat loan or generous gift from him, it’s trickier, Hennelly said. And if his mind is clear and his health sound, the transaction may all be legal, because in the end, a grown man can give his money to whomever he wants.

Bill Kopca may be 80 and a little hard of hearing, but there’s nothing wrong with his mind. He lives with his sister in a modest little house on a leafy Worth street. His rusting car sits in the driveway. He sits in an easy chair, next to a couch piled high with documents. Piles cover the kitchen table, too.

He’s anxious he won’t get his money back, and to a retired truck driver like him, the $23,500 he’s given Sirchie in dribs and drabs since meeting her in August is a lot of money. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, sitting in his easy chair next to piles of papers and things. “She has all the answers.”

His children hired a private detective to check out Sirchie after their father used up his cell phone minutes calling her number.

Then they found out about the money he gave her, starting with $3,300 she said she needed for property taxes. He paid the bill for new carpet for her house after she complained about water damage. And he bought her dinner after dinner, often several entrees at a time.

Kopca’s kids accompanied their father to the Worth police station to see what could be done about his money.

“Dad, can’t you see what’s going on?” one son kept asking his father.

Yes, Kopca says, he can see now.

He did get Sirchie to sign a promissory note vowing to pay back the money by September, and she’s already made some payments through the Worth police. But so far it’s only a fraction of what he’s given her.

Yet there’s a part of him that admires Sirchie’s spunk. He tells her, “If you were straight, I’d marry you. But you’re crooked.

“She’s a go-getter,” he said in his living room, “a hard worker and a go-getter.”

Kopca is only one of Sirchie’s gentleman friends.

“He wants a woman,” she said of “Bill.”

She was gifted hundreds of thousands of dollars from another south suburban man, now deceased, whose family is livid. He was, she said, like a father to her.

“He didn’t want to give them the money,” she said.

She won’t say if there are others now, though Cook County records show there is at least one special gentleman in life: her husband, who she married in 2008.

Aside from the Greek statues out front, the facade of her white house looks like any other in that modest section of Worth. But turn the corner and the immense depth of the house comes into view.

On a sunny afternoon, vehicles move in and out of the driveway, including a little silver Mercedes. The blond woman behind the wheel wears sunglasses.

The plates are registered to Sirchie but are supposed to be affixed, according to the secretary of state’s office, to a 2008 Chevy. Sirchie’s not supposed to be driving at all. Her license was suspended for unpaid parking tickets.

Her property tax bills remain unpaid too. County records Wednesday showed she owes a total of $4,328 on the Worth property, including $2,088 overdue from last year.

Sirchie said she used to run a cleaning business. One still is listed in online directories at her home address, along with a psychic reading business and a roofing company. None of those businesses are registered with the state.

But this, she says again and again, this is how she earns her keep now.

“I got to do what I got to do to support my family and my house,” said Sirchie, who also goes by Venus Miller, and at times refers to herself as “Mary.”

And she’s not forcing anyone to give her anything. They just do it. They like her, her gentleman friends. They’re lonely. They’re going to have to give their money to the government anyway, so why not just hand it to her?

“If this is what I do for a living,” she said, “it’s my business.

“I’m not crazy. I’m going to keep on doing it,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”

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