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.

Page 4 of 7

What the victims' alliance didn't know was that the Fremont cops and state Attorney General's office, which had initiated a civil investigation, had taken their complaints seriously enough to quietly pass along the case to the IRS. Indeed, Thompson had been about to get a court order that would have forced Beredo to turn over more evidence, but was told to back off and let the feds take over.

The tax cops, after all, had the tools to scrutinize Beredo's financial history, and they wanted this case. "The IRS doesn't often get a chance to be the good guy," says spokesman Mark Lessler. "We have a lot of cases where the government is largely the only identifiable victim. But in this case you had victims who were living, breathing people who lost in some cases their life savings."

Special Agent Cecilia Braga, a soft-spoken and tenacious Filipina investigator, was put in charge of the case, which would take nearly two years to complete. She immediately recognized Beredo's business as a Ponzi scheme, and saw how she was taking advantage of her targets' ethnic background. "I know that when Filipinos do immigrate to the United States, it's always scary," she says. "You're in a new country and you're a little bit skeptical of other races, because in your homeland everybody was pretty much Filipino. They tend to trust more people from their own ethnicity."

Braga's investigation didn't turn up much about Beredo's past. According to court documents, her parents had died and she'd been raised by an aunt and uncle. She came to the United States in 1995 and was allowed a temporary stay thanks to her husband's employment here, but she had overstayed her legal welcome. In the States, Beredo created quite a paper trail. Braga uncovered at least 29 bank accounts and six different travel agencies -- many registered in the victims' names -- linked to the con woman. If trouble arose at one office, Beredo would simply open a new one. These offices did some legitimate ticket sales, but their real purpose, apparently, was as a setting to attract new marks.

Beredo had boasted to potential investors that she had ticket-buying agreements with many of the Bay Area's biggest companies -- Applied Materials, Boeing, Bechtel, Oracle, the Oakland Raiders -- as well as a dozen major air carriers, claims Braga found to be false. "There were no contracts whatsoever," she says.

The agent also conducted weekly trash runs at Beredo's house to learn how she was spending her money. Sifting through coffee grounds and banana peels, Braga collected $60,000 in receipts for shops such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. "The cash receipts of her shopping habits were astonishing," she recalls. Through her rubbish recon, Braga also stumbled upon a crucial piece of information: Beredo was a fugitive from the Philippine justice system.

This discovery, in fact, was first made by two of Beredo's victims who still lived in the Philippines, a husband and wife named Jun Arcilla and Jovina Obiacoro. In an attempt to pressure the con artist to return their money, the couple had faxed Beredo court documents showing that she had been charged with estafa (check fraud) in 1995; she'd fled the Philippines shortly thereafter and was convicted in absentia in 1996. If they didn't get their money back, the couple threatened, they would alert US authorities. Beredo simply tossed the incriminating fax in the trash, where Braga recovered it. In a circuitous fashion, Arcilla and Obiacoro had achieved their goal.

To really prove Beredo's guilt, Braga had to catch the swindler red-handed. So in December 2001, the IRS sent in an undercover agent wearing a wire. One of Beredo's victims agreed to introduce the agent as a "rich and frugal" friend who wanted to buy tickets to the Philippines. Sure enough, Beredo made her usual pitch. The agent invested $5,000, and was promised a 10 percent return in four days. There was no payout. In January, the IRS sent him back with another $5,000. Again, Beredo didn't pay. The agent continued to demand repayment until May 2002. "We have to give her enough time, give her plenty of opportunity to do the right thing if this was a legitimate investment," Braga explains. It was a delicate choice: Braga knew the longer the operation took, the more victims Beredo would snag. And she'd gotten better at it than ever.

By 2002, Beredo had left trails of sorrow through nearly every city in southern Alameda County, as well as San Jose, South San Francisco, and even Southern California. Nobody had a better view of the scam than Rosemarie de Vora, whom Beredo had hired to run a Fremont office she dubbed World Destiny Travel.

De Vora doesn't speak Tagalog, and she thinks Beredo hired her because she couldn't eavesdrop on the parade of upset people coming into the office. But de Vora was no fool. She quickly realized that Beredo knew little about running a business. "She never paid her bills; she did not know how to set up a ledger for bill-paying; she never kept track of ingoing or outgoing checks; there was no record for taxes," she says.

As Mankinen had, de Vora saw things that aroused her suspicion, such as Beredo's tendency to deal in cash. "She said Filipinos don't like to pay checks," the office manager recalls. Beredo also claimed she ran a string of travel agencies, but de Vora couldn't find their phone numbers listed anywhere. And the boss would frequently call herself "Maria De Guzman," particularly when dealing with the landlord. "She would lie about things she had no reason to lie about, like what she was wearing or what time she came into the office," de Vora says. "I've never met anybody who was that adept at lying."

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