"We handle people who feel that they've been taken advantage of, whether it's a business, insurance company or charge account problems, anyone who feels they cannot handle a situation and that it is harming them in some way," said Chenkin, 77, one of more than 2,000 Senior Sleuth volunteers in the state, according to the Web site.

With the opening of a third Palm Beach County office of Seniors vs. Crime in the Mae Volen Senior Center in Boca Raton on June 14, people have another place to mediate complaints about consumer products and services.

Whether it's shoddy workmanship from a carpenter, a car warranty that was not honored or a dispute with a dressmaker, Seniors vs. Crime, a project of the Florida State Attorney General's Office, is there to help, said Frank Poston, regional director for Region 1.

"We're one of Florida's best-kept secrets," said Poston, 69, who oversees the storefronts in 11 counties from Key West to Sebastian. Other Palm Beach County storefronts are west of Delray Beach and in West Palm Beach, which also opened in mid-June, according to JoAnn Carrin, communications director for state Attorney General Charlie Crist.

The project was started in 1989 and grew out of a task force on crime and the elderly by the Attorney General's Office, according to its Web site. It handles only civil disagreements. If the complaint involves a criminal act, it is referred to the Attorney General's Office, according to Chenkin, one of two volunteers at Mae Volen.

"Our biggest case had to do with hurricane shutters. The vendor took deposits but never installed the shutters in time for the season. It went to the Attorney General's Office," said Chenkin, who has been a volunteer for three years.

The program, funded by settlements from litigants in the Attorney General's Office, mediates disputes between consumers and businesses and service providers. If they determine the consumer deserves a refund, they help the consumer recover the money or the service that wasn't provided, Poston said.

"Statewide in 2005, we recovered just over $900,000. In addition, we got goods and services delivered to the tune of another $950,000, at zero cost to them," Poston said.

Hannah Klingsberg, director of Life Enrichment at Mae Volen, was instrumental in bringing the project to the senior center. Her decision to provide space for the program grew out of a seminar where she met Donald E. Ravenna, Seniors vs. Crime executive director.

To help get the word out, Seniors vs. Crime has partnered with the Boca Raton Police Department, which refers non-criminal complaints to Seniors vs. Crime.

Officers will hand out brochures about the program at public education programs. The brochures also have been given to road patrol officers to distribute, Poston said.

Storefront volunteers are required to read manuals describing the rules and regulations of the program, undergo one hour of training with Al Payne, deputy regional director for Region 1, and sit in on two cases with a volunteer, Payne said.

"We teach them how to conduct themselves and deal with agitated residents who want their money back. We're not in a position to say who is right or who is wrong. We weigh both sides and make a decision. Ninety-five percent of the time the vendor is at fault and you try to make a recovery," said Payne, who is headquartered in the storefront west of Delray Beach.

That office has recovered more than $4 million for residents since June 2001, when it opened as the statewide pilot program for a walk-in center, according to Payne.

This is cache, read story here