Stu Bykofsky | Hard con clicks in Bala Cynwyd

Posted: July 02, 2007

LOUISA IS TOO embarrassed for me to use her real name.

Like many victims of con artists, she is ashamed of being stupid and greedy, when she is really neither. Louisa - scalpel-sharp at 73, after a long career as a medical secretary and administrative assistant - was worked over by two fast-talking pros.

In the early afternoon two weeks ago, as Louisa was piling groceries in her car outside the Acme in Bala Cynwyd, she was approached by a 40ish African-American woman in smart business attire holding a black clutch bag. Diana, she said her name was.

Diana said she had found the handbag and asked Louisa if it was hers. Louisa said no and kept stowing her groceries, mindful of the rotisserie chicken and the ice cream she had just bought. Louisa, who is also black, wanted to get her groceries home to her apartment in the Wynnefield Heights area.

"What do I do with the bag?" Diana asked.

"Take it into Acme, give it to the manager," Louisa replied.

Diana opened the bag and blurted, "Oh, my God! Look at this! This is our lucky day!"

The bag was bulging with 100- and 1,000-dollar bills.

Note Diana said "our" lucky day.

"The person who lost this must be frantic," objected Louisa.

Out of nowhere, Ellis suddenly appeared - no mean trick for a 6-foot-5, 300-pound black man. He was in his 50s, well-groomed and wearing an expensive brown suit. He claimed to be a wealthy, retired NFL player and flashed an NFL ring under Louisa's nose.

Diana said to him, "Look, honey, what we found."

Louisa said, "It's not for us to keep."

Ellis said it was theirs. "Who ever heard of refusing cash money?" He pulled out a huge bankroll that he said was for his employees at the Boston Market he owned across the street.

They wanted to talk and all got into Louisa's green Toyota Camry.

"It was happening so fast," Louisa said.

Diana fished around in the bag and came up with a note addressed to "Mom," saying she was to deposit this money in her Swiss bank account "and don't give any more to the cops, they can't be trusted."

They created the illusion it was "dirty money," said Louisa.

"We are going to divide it up three ways," said Diana.

"No," said Louisa.

"Are you a crazy fool? I'm a loan officer at Sovereign Bank," said Diana, who volunteered to "check the serial numbers" on the cash.

"I was like a little puppet," Louisa said. Diana and Ellis jabbered nonstop, not giving Louisa time to think, even though she felt something was wrong.

"Aren't you excited?" they demanded.

" 'For what? It isn't my money,' " Louisa said. "They started talking whenever I resisted."

She was weakening. "It was plain greed at that point," she said.

Then they found the winning lottery tickets worth $100,000 in the bag.

What? you may be asking. Winning lottery tickets? Anything else?

Yes - bonds in the bottom of the bag worth $7 million that Diana's boss at the bank, "Mr. Goldberg," would launder for them, but they needed upfront bribe money. Diana and Ellis were moving fast as a street hustler playing three-card monte.

You may be thinking, no one could pull this on me.

"It happens with alarming regularity against people who one might think would never or could never fall for such a line," D.A. Lynne Abraham told me, although the elderly and vulnerable are usual targets.

"Everything that sounds too good, is," she cautioned. "When people come up to you and say they're going to share untold wealth with you if you put up a good faith deposit of cash - bells, whistles, alarms should go off right away."

Looking back on it, Louisa said, "I can't believe how dumb I was."

In December her apartment was damaged in a fire, her car had been first sideswiped and then stolen, and Louisa was thinking maybe she was due for some good luck. That morning's horoscope said she was coming into money. Louisa likes to follow the horoscopes.

She was also just tired of listening to the fast "we're gonna be rich!" cackling of Diana and Ellis. "I wanted to get it over with," Louisa said.

Diana and Ellis had broken her.

She went to her bank and withdrew $15,000. Then Ellis escorted her home to drop off the groceries - she was concerned the ice cream was melting and the rotisserie chicken might go bad - and then Ellis and Diana conned her into getting another $15,000 as a cash advance from her credit cards.

They drove to the Sovereign office and Diana got out to go in. "I was their chauffeur the whole time," Louisa said, ruefully.

Ellis excused himself to go to the men's room, telling Louisa to give Diana five minutes to arrange the payoff with Mr. Goldberg. Then she could go in and collect $2 million in a brown bag.

When Louisa went into the bank, there was no Mr. Goldberg. There was no Diana. Ellis never returned from the men's room.

In an instant, Louisa knew she had been conned in a variation of the Pigeon Drop.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," said Louisa, because the 30 grand didn't bankrupt her, but she's thinking of those who might have been left penniless. That's why she's telling her story, as a warning to others.

But she still hasn't gone to the police.

Diana and Ellis made her too ashamed.

It is they who deserve the shame. *

E-mail stubyko@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5977. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/byko.

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