(Editor’s note: Long-time resident Haldis Toppel, who serves as Area 3 representative on the Community Council, has shared the following story with Circling the News in hopes that it might prevent others from being scammed. The story is true, but the name of the victim has been changed.)
Palisades Resident Loses $17,000 through Scam Artist
Mary and her husband live in Pacific Palisades and have several children and grandchildren and a successful business. Her 80th birthday is approaching.
On April 1, she checked her email and saw that Haldis Toppel, whom she knows, had sent her a Facebook message. She clicked on the link and over the next 10 days, Mary thought she was conversing with Haldis via texts on Haldis’ cell phone number.
When she tried to call Haldis directly, the phone seemed to be out of order and the call didn’t go through. However, Mary continued to text with “Haldis,” who finally identified himself as Kent Johnson, “a friend of Haldis.”
He offered her the opportunity to participate in an investment fund that would support the local community, but first she had to qualify by giving $2,000. There was a guaranteed $10,000 return.
Once again Mary tried to call Haldis, but there was no answer, so she texted her and “Haldis” assures her via text that all was well and that she had been successfully working with Kent, and received $18,000 from him so far on a $2,000 investment.
(Haldis told CTN that she had never received any calls or text from Mary during this time.)
Mary went to her bank, withdrew the cash, and then went to CVS to buy the gift cards for that amount. Kent asked her to photograph the cards on her cell phone and send him the pictures to verify that she had purchased the cards.
Kent then sent her a “certificate of qualification” which included her Facebook picture and the request to purchase another $5,000, which would then “qualify” for a cash shipment of $180,000 in a steel case via a Federal Express truck.
After checking again with “Haldis,” Mary withdrew another $5,000 in cash from her bank and bought more gift cards. “Haldis” assured her repeatedly that all was well. Mary was grateful, thinking she had a trusted and well-informed friend.
Kent gave her the arrival date of the Federal Express truck for the next day at noon, and told her to make sure she was home to show her “Certificate” to receive the steel box with her cash.
At 8 a.m. that morning, Mary received a text from Kent and pictures of a horrifying crash of the Federal Express truck in flames and a picture of the driver on life support in the hospital. Of course, the delivery would be delayed but her money was safe because it was in a fireproof steel box, said Kent.
Mary contacted “Haldis” with another text message notifying her of the mishap and “Haldis” commiserated with her.
The next day, Mary received a call from Kent that the truck fire had caused extensive damage to surrounding homes and that the company was settling with the homeowners to avoid a lawsuit which would of course delay her shipment of the cash.
Kent asked for a $15,000 settlement. Mary became concerned and texted “Haldis,” who advised her to try to settle for $10,000, still a small amount to pay for the $180,000 on its way. With the offer accepted, Mary went back to her bank a third time, withdrew $10,000 and bought $6,000 of gift cards at Ralphs and $4,000 at CVS.
CVS made her sign a disclaimer that she was not being scammed. Mary signed, knowing that she had confirmed everything with “Haldis.”
On April 10, Mary waited for the arrival of her money, but communication with Kent went silent. And of course, the money never arrived.
Mary’s husband was worried that she had been scammed and once again Mary called Haldis. This time the call went through.
Haldis had no idea what Mary was talking about, because she had never received the text messages, calls or attempted calls from Mary. She had not spoken to Kent or Mary.
Haldis took actions to try to salvage something for her friend, but it was futile. Both CVS and Ralphs said that once the cards are purchased there is nothing that can be done to cancel them.
Haldis reached out to her contacts at LAPD so see if there were options to reach the cards’ security department to stop them. It was now 5:30 p.m. Friday night and all offices were closed for the weekend, on both coasts, and so was the Detective office at West LAPD. But, West L.A. Captain Jonathon Tom, who said his father had also been scammed, reached out to one of his detectives after-hours to immediately take an incident report.
Haldis said, “The detective was a wonderfully skilled interviewer as well as a compassionate listener. He did not have an easy time. The emotions were high and the confusion great. In a kind and calming voice, he guided Mary through the list of questions and the long saga.”
The detective discovered in the interview that the scammer had her personal information, such as her social security number, her date of birth and other relevant information, indicating this could be an identity theft problem.
The detective said phones are “shadowed,” which means it looks like the calls are coming from one phone number when they are actually directed to the scammer at another number.
Toppel said that Mary and her husband are kind members of the community and love their family. They hope to leave something meaningful for their children and grandchildren. This loss was not something they were able to take lightly.
Toppel added that earlier this month, she had been “notified by a friend that my Facebook page had potentially been hacked. He had received a message that I clearly did not send. I immediately changed my Facebook password and posted a message on my wall to ignore any message appearing to come from me since I had not posted anything for a long time. Unfortunately, that message did not reach Mary in time. I am now seriously considering shutting down my Facebook page since I have stopped using it a long time ago.”
Mary now had to do the following things to protect herself from further damage.
- Close down all credit cards and have them re-issued.
- Notify her bank immediately to put a warning on her account.
- Notify all three credit reporting companies and monitor her score.
- Notify her insurance company for a potential recovery due to theft by deception (as identified in the Police Report).
- Notify her CPA to discuss a potential loss for a tax write-off.
WARNINGS TO ALL RESIDENTS:
- If you are in communication with anybody that you cannot identify by sight, sound or in person, don’t give out any information about yourself or enter into any agreements.
- If the offer or promise is too good to be true, it probably is.
- Shadow calls can happen and residents might want to purchase a phone blocker, which will stop calls from coming in that are known to be spammers or that try to entice you to click on a message.
- An identity theft program might also be something to consider.