Catch Me If You Can 

After losing big to a Filipina swindler posing as a travel agent, her East Bay compatriots took matters into their own hands.

One day during the summer of 1997, a woman walked into Fremont's LG Travel to buy a pair of airline tickets to the Philippines. Her name, at least for this article, is Soledad, or "solitude." She chose that name for herself because the events that unfolded are still a terrible secret she hides from her husband and parents. Her secret digs at her, embarrasses her, cuts her off from the ones she loves most. She doesn't know how to tell them she lost her life savings to a total stranger.

Soledad was greeted at the travel agency by Nimfa Montes Beredo, a likable woman who goes by the nickname "Patricia." Like Soledad, Beredo is Filipina; she had come to the United States from the Philippines just two years before. Now 39, Beredo had -- and still has -- the face of a college student, tiny and cute, with long dark straight hair, full lips, and a snub nose. But to Soledad, she looked every inch the successful businesswoman. She had the well-coifed hair, manicured nails, luxury car, designer outfit and shoes, and expensive gold jewelry. And Beredo's manner -- bubbly, expressive, girlish -- made it easy to relax in her presence. Following a pleasant conversation, the travel agent made Soledad an unexpected offer. She had a business plan to buy bulk airline tickets at a discount and resell them at a substantial profit. All she needed was a partner to cover the cost of the tickets. Might Soledad be interested?

A customer-service employee at a high-tech firm, Soledad was enticed by the promise of a 10 percent return in just one month, and felt reassured when Beredo buttered her up in Tagalog, the principal Filipino dialect. "She said, 'I see you as a good person,'" Soledad remembers. "In our dialect she said she likes me and we can be good business partners." The agency they were standing in certainly looked legitimate: It had cubicles, computers, and customers. Beredo had a business card identifying her as the manager and her desk was at the very front of the building, which Soledad thought made her look important. In truth, Beredo was simply renting her cubicle from LG Travel's owners, but Soledad couldn't have known that. The two kept in contact and, that August, Soledad decided to invest. "I took $10,000 out of my savings," she recalls. "I gave her a check and right away she gave me $1,000 cash, just right there."

Ten grand was only the beginning. Beredo kept asking for more. Still without telling her family, Soledad borrowed from her credit union and her 401(k) until she had invested about $60,000. Then Beredo hit her up for something really big -- she said she wanted to buy LG Travel, and asked Soledad to take out a $50,000 business loan for its purchase. "She said she cannot take a loan by herself," Soledad remembers. "She doesn't have good credit and she's not a US citizen and I am both." Moreover, Beredo promised her the loan was temporary -- as soon as the travel agent transferred the business into her own name, she would take it over. Soledad agreed, and when Bank of America granted her the money in the name of "LG Travel," she rolled the entire $50,000 into Beredo's personal account. "I never even saw the check," she says.

For the next two years, things seemed to go smoothly. Soledad loaned Beredo more money and received some payments. Sure, Beredo wasn't paying out quite as much or as frequently as she'd promised, but whenever Soledad asked about it, Beredo always had what seemed like a good excuse. In the meantime, they were becoming friends. Although Beredo was in fact married with two daughters, she told Soledad she was single, childless, and younger than she truly was. The pair would go shopping and out to eat. Beredo confided her boyfriend troubles, called Soledad her best friend, and gave her free airline tickets and gifts like Louis Vuitton purses and roses on her birthday. She would sometimes regale her friend with stories about her high-flying lifestyle, about how she had rented a boat while vacationing in Tahoe, or had taken her friends to the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. "She was a very nice person to be friends with if you don't know she's doing all these bad things," Soledad recalls.

Before long, however, Soledad began picking up some hints that Beredo was up to something very bad indeed. In 1999, Bank of America complained that Beredo had stopped paying off the interest and demanded Soledad repay the loan. When Soledad asked her new friend about it, Beredo admitted to having money problems, but used the opportunity to hit her up for more funds. "She told me that the business of buying LG Travel didn't go through," Soledad recalls. "So she told me, 'I'm going to form another business, and if you can help me form it it's the only way I can pay you. '" Beredo offered to list Soledad's name as CEO "in name only" on the incorporation papers as a show of good faith. The woman took the bait, and Beredo dubbed the new agency Fremont Cyber International Travel Services. It was in the same office as LG Travel.

The new business didn't make things any better. Soon there was a letter from the state Employment Development Board asking Soledad why she hadn't paid any taxes on the business she thought she owned "in name only." There were calls from people who said they were investors and wanted to know where their money had gone. A mutual acquaintance let it slip that Beredo was actually married, and when Soledad confronted her about it Beredo claimed it was a marriage of convenience and that her children were actually her husband's. Things were getting confusing and scary as more of Beredo's investors threatened to hold Soledad responsible. "I was worried," she remembers. "What's going to happen? Are they going to put a lien on my property?"

By early 2001, Beredo confided to Soledad that she owed people who'd invested in her airline ticket business a lot of money, that she wasn't able to make payments, and that the interest was accumulating too quickly. Soledad tried to remain supportive because she didn't want to jeopardize her chances of getting repaid. She recalls one afternoon when Beredo seemed to break down. "She was telling me, 'Let's go to a church. Help me pray,'" she says. They drove around looking for a church, but couldn't find one that was open.

And anyway, by then it would have been hard to find anyone left in the East Bay's Filipino community willing to pray for Patricia Beredo. Soledad, it turned out, was just one among many dozens of marks who had together sunk millions of dollars into Beredo's bogus business. Con artists often play on a common thread they have with their victims. In this case it was a shared Filipino heritage and close community ties that allowed her scam to spread among family members and co-workers, and from one family to the next.

It hit Eugene Mankinen's family like a virus. Mankinen isn't Filipino, but his wife and in-laws are. The semiretired electrical engineer from San Jose was brought into the scheme by his unwitting brother-in-law, who had been recruited by his sister-in-law and also had gone on to solicit funds from his mother and sister -- at least nine friends and family members eventually invested. It's this aspect Mankinen finds the most repugnant: "You've got sister selling brother on this scam. It's pretty slick," he says.

The con followed a formula. The mark would invest after being promised extraordinary returns, receive one or two payments, and excitedly invest more and bring in new victims. Then the checks would start to bounce. Sometimes investors would give Beredo access to their credit cards to cover airline ticket purchases, only to later receive exorbitant bills for personal expenses. When they tried to complain, Beredo would magically slip away. She'd stop taking their calls, and always seemed to be absent when they showed up at her office. Only then it would dawn on them: There was no bulk airline ticket business. All of the trappings used to win their trust -- the cars, the suits, the gifts -- came straight out of their own pockets.

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