Irish Travelers linked to scams in state

Woman caught on tape beating daughter says she's part of group

Oshkosh Northwestern/September 27, 2002
By Patricia Wolff

Richard and Iris Patzkowsky of Friendship have been watching with interest news reports of Madelyne Gorman Toogood and the band of Irish Travelers she claims to be part of.

The Adams County couple was bilked out of $8,300 this year when scam artists said to be Irish Travelers blacktopped their driveway, overcharging them by thousands of dollars while performing poor quality work, Iris Patzkowsky said.

Not all Irish Travelers are scam artists. But the ones who blacktopped the Patzkowsky driveway certainly fit the bill, said a spokeswoman from the Wisconsin Department of Consumer Protection.

The term Irish Travelers captured national attention recently when Toogood was caught on videotape hitting her young daughter in an Indiana shopping center parking lot. Toogood said she was an Irish Traveler.

The mother and her associates have not been connected to the group of itinerant workers who came through the Patzkowsky's area, but the Irish Traveler name has, said Glenn Lloyd of the Wisconsin Department of Consumer Protection.

The Patzkowskys can't be blamed for their naivete. They are like many other people in Wisconsin -- trusting.

Wisconsin is a destination state for groups of traveling scam artists looking for potential victims. They target the elderly with paving, roofing, barn painting and other scams, Lloyd said. "We're known as a victim state," Lloyd said. "We're very trusting people in Wisconsin. The perpetrators come from the sunshine states."

Traveling scam artists are an ongoing problem throughout the state. The group known as Irish Travelers has been implicated in crimes against people in several central Wisconsin counties, area law enforcement officials said.

Workers claiming to be members of this clannish band of workers were arrested in Wisconsin this summer. The Madison and Milwaukee areas were hit hard. One even made an international call to Ireland on a client's telephone, Lloyd said.

The Travelers roam the nation much of the year, working as painters, roofers, sealers, and pavers. Their world, say police who've studied them for years, is deliberately isolated and highly secretive, according to a report in USA Today.

The Travelers came to America during the Irish potato famine of the 19th century. Similar nomadic people from England and Scotland also came here, and all made their living trading livestock, selling wares and plying trades. Today, estimates of the Traveler population vary from 20,000 to 100,000, according to USA Today.

Law enforcement officials in Marquette, Adams, Waushara, Sauk, Milwaukee and Dane counties have investigated scams involving Irish Travelers and other groups. Charges are pending against two or three individuals in Dane County stemming from a tree-trimming scam there in May, said Sgt. Gordie Disch, of the Dane County Sheriff's Department.

"They took advantage of a sick person. A neighbor didn't necessarily think their service was needed and contacted us," Disch said. "We tracked them down in a motel on the east side of Madison. There were 22 of them.

Irish Travelers out of North Carolina were implicated in two scams in Dane County this year, Disch said, the one involving tree-trimming, and another involving barn painting.

Scam artists often come around offering to pave or seal driveways or repair roofs, Lloyd said. "They offer what look like good prices, but their work is very poor in quality," he said.

In the Patzkowsky case, the scam artists came by claiming they had some asphalt left over from another job and could let them have it for a low price. The bill of $8,300 was nearly $3,000 higher than what a local contractor would have charged for the same job, Iris Patzkowsky discovered later.

The Patzkowskys are working with the Wisconsin Department of Consumer Protection to recoup their loss, they said.

Sometimes scam artists enter an area with a truck bearing the name of a reputable furniture company such as Thomasville, but the furniture is not from the company, Lloyd said.

Other times they have trucks with magnetic signs that can be easily removed in case authorities are alerted to their unscrupulous activities and try to apprehend them, said Capt. Manny Bolz, of the Sauk County Sheriff's Department.

"These people are pretty smart. They come into the state with Wisconsin license plates so they don't look like transients," Bolz said.

Traveling scam artists are of several nationalities, Bolz said, not just Irish. They often used assumed names.

"Most of them change their names like the rest of us change our underwear," Bolz said.

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