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.

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But Carrion didn't stop there. On a trip to the Philippines, she inquired with that country's National Bureau of Investigation to see if Beredo had a record. It was a clever impulse, but ultimately fruitless, since Carrion didn't know what city Beredo was from or whether she'd used another name back home. She returned empty-handed, but still determined.

Back at Beredo's office, the con woman stonewalled her. "She was giving me attitude and shouting at me and banging the phone, and she really pissed me off," Carrion recalls. So, in a moment of pique, Carrion spirited the receptionist's phone message log off the desk and copied down all of the names and numbers she found there. At home, she called everyone on the list, and discovered other angry investors to whom Baredo owed money. Carrion's idea was that they would share their stories, piece together the scam's common elements, and present their case to the authorities en masse. "If you go as a group, perhaps it will have an impact on the police," she figured.

The newfound five-member alliance first met to compare horror stories in a Denny's restaurant, and later at people's homes. At first it was mostly women, including Soledad and a Fremont woman, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Christine Day. Day had invested $20,000 and Beredo charged another $25,000 to her credit card. "She always targeted women and told them not to tell their husbands, so that the women would be scared and not make a big thing out of it if they lost the money," she says.

The women wanted to close the net on Beredo. Not knowing where to start, they tried the media. They mailed a letter to Fox affiliate KTVU, Channel 2, as well as "7 on Your Side," a consumer segment on KGO-TV, Channel 7. No luck. "They said they didn't have the manpower to do an investigation," Day says. They also filed reports with the Fremont Police Department, and with the state Attorney General's Seller of Travel Program, which regulates travel agencies.

Although they found comfort in numbers, members of the anti-Beredo club were dispirited when they realized how large her debt truly was. As new members joined, each member's chance of being repaid seemed to diminish. They began to feel that hiring a lawyer would just be throwing good money after bad. Then, in 2001, Beredo filed for bankruptcy, giving her victims a new way to confront her. The court appointed a trustee to examine her assets, which were to be liquidated and distributed to creditors. And the creditors were allowed to publicly question Beredo about where their money had gone, which led to heated interrogations by her victims.

None of them, however, got anything from Beredo but a "doey-eyed" look, according to Tevis Thompson, the court trustee. "We asked her about her receipts, her bills, her canceled checks -- anything that would really show some trail of where money might have gone -- and she would look at us with this strange, confused look and say 'I don't know what you're talking about, I don't know much about business,'" he recalls. "She wouldn't understand what a check was, what 'income' or 'expense' was. It was very frustrating."

If Beredo had money, she kept it well hidden. The fancy cars, as Mankinen had previously discovered, turned out to be leased. An upscale house had been rented, not owned. "There was an evidence of high living," Thompson says, "which doesn't translate into assets, personal property." Likewise, an attorney hired by the courts to research Beredo's financial holdings came up empty-handed. "If all this money was flying around, where did it go?" Thompson asks. "There was no real answer to that. [Beredo] just kind of said it was gone."

Dissatisfied with the way the hearings were going, Christine Day decided to launch her own sting. In bankruptcy, the debtor must shutter the failed business. Day was convinced Beredo had simply closed one office and started a new one, a Fremont agency called Travel Unlimited. To prove it, she walked into the office and pretended to price tickets. She asked the man at the front desk to write down his boss' name. It was "Patricia Beredo." Then the phone rang, and Beredo herself was on the line; Day asked her about tickets and was quoted a rate. Now convinced, Day obtained a copy of the agency's business registration from the city. Her hunch had been correct. "She had mentioned in the bankruptcy papers that she wasn't an employee for Travel Unlimited, and in the business registration she was employee number one," Day exclaims. "She was lying under oath!"

Day produced this new evidence in the midst of a questioning session, handing over the incriminating papers to Thompson and provoking quite a reaction. "Oh, everybody was shocked," Day recalls. The revelation indicated that Beredo was hiding her assets from the court. "It seemed to us that she'd taken all the assets -- furniture and fixtures -- and moved it to another spot and called it a different name and was working under someone else's travel license because hers didn't work anymore," Thompson says.

The court, however, could find little else that Beredo owned. In the end, it distributed a mere $21,350 to her creditors -- and most of that came by way of her attorney forgoing his fees. Despite the victims' court attendance and all the reports they'd submitted to the authorities, they felt ignored. "We thought that nothing is happening," Carrion says. "When we would follow up with the police and Seller of Travel office, they would say there is something working out but we cannot divulge what is going on. It was frustrating."

Discouraged, the group gave up.

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