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Scam begins with distraught phone call

Seven people have filed complaints; two fell victim to the pricey ruse.

By Saundra Amrhein, Times Staff Writer
Published February 22, 2008


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Sun City Center -- Sometime after 9 a.m. on a recent chilly morning, after Sarah Ash decided to forgo her morning walk and before getting ready for a community luncheon, the phone rang.

"Mom?" said a man, sounding distraught, as if he'd been crying.

"Yes?" Ash answered. "David, is that you?"

Her son lived in Chicago. He was going through personal problems with his family, she knew. He sounded strained, like something was terribly wrong.

She didn't realize that her motherly concern was about to lead her into one of the newest scams victimizing Sun City Center residents.

"Where are you?" Ash asked.

"I'm here."

"Where? Where is here?"

"Do you know where Brandon is?" he asked.

"Of course I know where Brandon is," she answered. "Why?"

"I've done something stupid," he said. "I've gambled."

"Oh, David," said the 86-year-old widow, her heart quickening.

"Well, it's worse than that. I gambled with a bookie and he's here with me," he said. "I need $8,000."

Ash was stunned. The voice didn't completely sound like David's, but she knew he'd been under a lot of stress lately. She feared he was in danger.

"I don't have $8,000," Ash said.

"Can't you get it?" he asked, sounding scared.

Ash said no, she didn't have it.

"How about $5,000?" he asked.

Ash was suspicious - and afraid. She peppered him with questions. What would the bookie do to him if he didn't pay?

"I don't know," he answered. How would he get home to Chicago? she asked. Did he have a plane ticket?

"Yes, I have a ticket," he said.

He needed the money in cash, he told her. Drive to the Denny's in Brandon and leave it in the car while you go inside the restaurant, he said.

"I don't want this person to see you," he explained. He gruffly gave her directions to Denny's and said he'd call right back.

Ash hung up with a bad feeling. She wasn't sure it was really David. She'd never dealt with a bookie before. She was torn between suspicion and concern. She picked up the phone and dialed another son, David's brother, who lives in Tampa.

"Mom, don't do anything. I'm on my way," he told her.

Then Ash called David's cell phone but got no answer.

A few minutes later, her phone rang. It was the man claiming to be David.

"I called your brother," she told him. "I'm not doing anything until he gets here."

"You shouldn't have done that," he said. "I didn't want anyone else to know about this." He hung up.

Moments later, the phone rang again. It was David, calling her back - from Chicago. No, he wasn't in Florida gambling, he said. He'd been in work meetings in Chicago since 7 that morning.

"If you don't believe me, I'll send you some snow," David said.

After Ash called the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, she learned that she was one of numerous residents targeted in the latest scam to hit the retirement community.

So far, seven people have filed complaints about similar phone calls, said Hillsborough sheriff's community resource Deputy Rob Thornton. In two of those cases, the victims carried out the caller's instructions and lost thousands of dollars, he said.

The method is always the same, Thornton said. The con artist likely trolls a phone book looking for a Sun City Center address, Thornton said. He calls and pretends to be a son who has lost money to a bookie while gambling. Each time, he urges his "parents" to leave cash in their unlocked car at a local store or restaurant so that the bookie won't see them together.

As is the case with many scams in Sun City Center, the thief is probably counting on the residents' trusting nature and the parents' concern for their children, he said.

"It's horrible how they are playing on feelings," the deputy said.

More victims might be out there but are too afraid or embarrassed to come forward, Thornton said. He wants them to call him. The more information he has, the better his chances of making an arrest, he said.

Ash, who recounted the ordeal in a conversation in her home, agreed that retired residents like her grew up in trusting times. She remembers how as a young bride, she went to the local bank with her husband and obtained a car loan on a handshake.

She never would have given the caller a second thought, she said, if not for the coincidence of David's personal problems.

"He really sounded desperate," she said. "That's going to scare a parent."

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or 661-2441.

To catch a thief

If you receive a similar phone call, Hillsborough County sheriff's officials ask that you immediately call them at 247-8200.

If you have additional information about the investigation, call community resource Deputy Rob Thornton's office at 672-7817.

[Last modified February 22, 2008, 08:28:03]


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