West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 18 | October 3 - 9, 2007

Roto-robbers clean out seniors with plumbers scam


“I am so stupid,” the 81-year-old woman told the police officer hunting the two men who had pretended to be plumbers and stole more than $300 from her bedroom.

“Oh, no,” the officer replied. “These people are just very slick.”

After the two phony plumbers had robbed Anne Habash and her husband, John, in their apartment at 435 E. 14th St., the two men drove to the Upper West Side, where they played their trick again one hour later — this time stealing $1,500 from a 92-year-old former opera singer, according to the police.

The two men knocked on the Habashes’ door on Aug. 20 around noon, and claimed there was an emergency and that they had to check the water pipes under the kitchen sink. Not suspecting anything, Mrs. Habash let them in and continued working in the kitchen. Her husband was in the bathroom shaving.

Soon one fake plumber said he needed to leave the apartment, and left the kitchen. Distracted by the remaining worker, who busily moved things underneath the sink, she didn’t notice that the other “plumber” had sneaked into their bedroom, Mrs. Habash said.

“They were even nice to me,” she said. She told her husband, who had asked what exactly the problem was, that he should not disturb the plumber.

As soon as the men left, the Habashes were overcome by suspicion and realized what happened.

Unfortunately for the couple, this was not the first time they had this realization. Almost exactly the same thing had happened to them about five years ago, when one “plumber” was able to steal several hundred dollars, a pocket watch that had belonged to Mr. Habash’s father and the watch he had received as a graduation present from his mother.

That first robber made a “perfectly believable claim,” Mr. Habash said, since there had been a flood with water up to their door a few days before the incident.

The second time around, Mrs. Habash was embarrassed about her misfortune.

“She’s been kicking herself ever since,” her husband said.

Mr. Habash is happy that nobody was harmed.

“Had I caught him in the act, things might have turned out worse,” he said.

Their neighbor Abby Diamond sees the incident as a warning to the neighborhood.

“Everybody will be much more careful now,” he said.

Residents of the apartment building at 105 W. 72nd St. say they will be wary of workmen, too, after Maria Zhorella was robbed in the same way — one hour after the Habashes.

Zhorella, who still gives private opera lessons, met one of the men the day before she was robbed. When she returned from the bank, she saw a middle-aged man in a professional-looking plumbing outfit standing outside her apartment building. She said he told her that he came to fix the pipes in the complex.

Described by neighbors as “the sweetest,” Zhorella let him into the building and chatted with him on the elevator ride. He got off with Zhorella on her floor, saying that she must live in the apartment he needed to check.

“He said, ‘You have problems with your pipes?’” Zhorella recalled. “And I did. I told him my shower doesn’t work well.”

The man arranged a time to return the next day, Monday, to complete the repairs. He arrived early in the afternoon with his accomplice. After playing with Zhorella’s dog, Maxie, one man went into the kitchen and the other to the bathroom.

The man in the kitchen asked Zhorella and her health assistant to help him bang on the pipes, so she grabbed a big, kitchen spoon and started hitting, she said.

Zhorella said that the man in the bathroom told them to pound harder, making it really loud in her apartment. After half an hour, the two fake plumbers left, instructing Zhorella and her helper to continue to hit the pipes while they went to the next apartment.

When the men didn’t return, the women stopped banging. They realized they had been scammed. The police said that the missing items totaled $1,500.

“She’s very fragile,” said neighbor Joan Levmann-Smith. “It’s a traumatic experience when you’re invaded like that. It’s hard on her, she’s vulnerable.”

Luis Ribera, the building’s superintendent, said that he always posts signs when workers are going to be in the building, but the crime happened on Ribera’s day off.

“I don’t know why people let people in without me,” Ribera said. “We have no cameras. It isn’t safe.”

Signs on the front door explain that workers will be entering the building to repair the roof. Giovanna DiBernardo, a resident, said that she would have fallen for the scam, too, because workmen are always in and out.

“It surprised me how nice they were to her. I would have been fooled just like that,” said DiBernardo, snapping her fingers.

Zhorella said that police said her robbery may be linked to a similar fake-plumber scam in Florida. The police said that both suspects in the New York case have moustaches and were wearing baseball caps. One suspect is a white or Hispanic man, 40 to 45 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall and 170 to 200 pounds and wears glasses. The other man is 5 feet 9 inches and 220 pounds, the police said. 

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