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Thursday, October 7, 2004
US Nonprofit chief duped of $51,000 by 419
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US Nonprofit chief duped of $51,000 by 419
- - Bakersfield Local News

Audrey Chavez, director of the Bakersfield AIDS Project, nailed down a $49,000 donation last summer. It was the largest gift in the organization's history, by far. At last, the 11-year-old nonprofit would be able to do some of the things Chavez had long dreamed about: Deliver more services to the afflicted, build greater public visibility, provide better educational tools to at-risk groups. She considered calling a press conference to announce the windfall. Good thing she held off.

It took precisely nine days for the good news to turn bad. There'd been no donation. No benefactor. In fact, it was a lot worse than that. She'd been scammed. If you're a frequent e-mail user, you may have received one of the many versions of this fairy-tale pitch: An elegantly worded offer from an obscure South African government official. He's got millions of dollars laying around because an account has been "over-invoiced," or some such thing. The deal is this: He'll deposit some of this money in your account and you can keep a chunk after everything is sorted out, less a portion for "taxation and miscellaneous expenses." Chavez, who received the pitch via the U.S. Postal Service rather than e-mail, which she says she rarely uses, bit hard. Perhaps, she decided, this might lead to the fulfillment of one of her greatest wishes: an AIDS hospice home for Bakersfield.

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"When I got the letter, I called the number and spoke to the man" who had signed it, Dr. George Aggrey, said Chavez, who started the Bakersfield AIDS Project in January 1993, a month after her brother, 36-year-old Ricky Montoya, died from AIDS. "Dr. George sounded like a nice gentleman. Looking back at it now, I can see the red flags." That was June 12; Aggrey and Chavez spoke by phone 15 or 20 times over the next five weeks. She told him about the AIDS Project's work, and Aggrey said it sounded like a worthwhile undertaking. He would like to help, he said.

On July 17 Aggrey promised to wire $49,000 to the AIDS Project's account at WestAmerica Bank's Truxtun Avenue branch, according to the July 29 report Chavez filed with the Bakersfield Police Department. Chavez, who says she first cleared it with a WestAmerica clerk on the company's toll-free customer service line, gave him her bank account number to facilitate the transfer. On July 20, Chavez checked and there it was: $49,000. The AIDS Project, which had never had a balance of more than $10,000 at any one time, was now showing $54,227. Aggrey called that night. He wanted to come to Bakersfield and see the AIDS Project's good work himself; there'd probably be more money forthcoming. But Chavez would have to send money to doctors and bankers with various, essential roles to play in the transaction -- some of those "miscellaneous expenses" he'd mentioned in the letter.

On July 21, Chavez said, she and AIDS Project volunteer John Willey withdrew $9,800 in cash from the WestAmerica Bank branch and sent it, via two Western Union wires, to two men in the United Kingdom. The next day, on Aggrey's instructions, she withdrew $22,000 more and wired it overseas. Aggrey called and left a message on Chavez's phone later that night. She still has it, saved on her answering machine. "I have some very good news," Aggrey says over the echoey, scratchy line. Expect a much bigger donation to be coming in, and prepare for a visit from our group in the next few days. "Thank you," he says, "and God bless you."

On Aggrey's instructions, Chavez made a third cash withdrawal of $20,000 on July 26 and wired a third series of payments. In all, she sent $51,100 in 11 wires to five men in the United Kingdom over six days. On July 27, a WestAmerica branch officer called. That $49,000 check had bounced. Check? Chavez says she'd never been told there was a check. The deposit was supposed to have been a wire transfer, she said; no one at the bank had ever told her there'd been a check. She certainly hadn't endorsed one. Turned out the check, mailed from Florida, was a counterfeit.

On Aug. 2, the bank notified Chavez in writing that it wanted its money back and would take "whatever action it feels necessary" to do so. WestAmerica eventually obtained a temporary lien on her house, said Chavez, who does not have an attorney. The BPD has turned the case over to the U.S. Secret Service, which investigates international frauds of this type. The likelihood of ever recovering anything, according to some of the Web sites that try to expose these crimes, is virtually nil.

Chavez says two bank officers have complained that the scam has cost at least two employees their jobs. Chavez knows of at least one with whom she often dealt who's now gone. Another, Chris Aldritt, who was the branch sales manager as recently as August, confirmed this week that he is no longer with WestAmerica either. Asked whether his parting was directly related to the AIDS Project scam, he begged off. "Call the folks in Fairfield," he said, referring to WestAmerica's main office. One might wonder why, if the bank sees this as Chavez's problem alone, bank employees have suffered consequences. If they were fired because they ignored protocol intended to protect the bank and its depositors, WestAmerica would seem to be acknowledging some degree of fault.

But WestAmerica Bank won't talk about the case. Customer service manager Kelli Aragon referred calls to Freitas McCarthy MacMahon & Keating, the San Rafael law firm that represents WestAmerica. The firm's managing partner, Richard P. Murray, through a secretary, said he would have no comment. Calls to WestAmerica's regional office in Fresno were not returned.

Three months ago, Chavez had never heard of the so-called "Nigerian scam," also known as the "419 scam," shell games that have been around in one form or another since at least the 1920s. She's well on her way to becoming an expert now. Too bad it will cost the Bakersfield AIDS Project so dearly. "My God, we work so hard just to get $5,000 raised in the community," she says. "Now this."

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