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Queens Chronicle

Police: Con Artists Stole $57G From Immigrants

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Posted: Thursday, November 2, 2006 12:00 am

A trio of alleged scam artists defrauded small immigrant owned businesses in Corona of tens of thousands of dollars in an elaborate scheme that has left the lives of four store owners and one resident in shambles, prosecutors said.

Two Bronx women and a Manhattan man were charged in Kew Gardens Criminal Court Friday with swindling victims of more than $57,000 during a six week crime spree that has already forced one beauty salon owner out of business and left three shop owners on the brink of bankruptcy.

Maria Dorta, 54, and Juana Garcia Lopez, 45, both of the Bronx, are accused of impersonating Con Edison and Bank of America employees and offering to pay their victims’ electricity bills or process their loan payments at a discounted rate if they paid up front and in cash. A third defendant, Aleido Gilrubio, 53, of Manhattan, allegedly abetted the scheme by using sham credit card checks to pay the bank and utility provider in exchange for hundreds of dollars in kickbacks.

The two alleged imposters, who are both unemployed, apparently went so far as to wear authentic Con Ed uniforms, furnish company I.D. cards and return to business owners a day later to provide them with a paper receipt documenting their transaction. Prosecutors claimed the scam artists preyed upon recent immigrants who spoke little English, had minimal understanding of basic financial protocols and, above all, were desperate to get their new businesses up and running.

Hardest hit was Mercedes Garcia, former owner of Mercedes Touch of Class Beauty Salon and Spa, located at 90 54 Corona Ave. When two women entered her store in July and identified themselves as a Con Ed worker and a bank debt consolidator, Garcia didn’t think twice about taking their sweetheart offer: a huge rebate on her electricity bill and help paying off the loan she had taken out to open her store. She handed over more than $31,000 that day.

On Tuesday, Garcia closed her salon for good, after only five months of being open. “I don’t know what I can do, because I owe too much money to the bank to stay open,” she said. “I thought these women were trying to help me.”

Enrique Mendez Rosales, 39, who owns a produce store just down the street, said he fared better than Garcia, but is still trying to recoup the loss of hundreds of dollars. When the two alleged scam artists entered his newly opened store wearing matching Con Ed uniforms in July, he too was quick to take them up on their offer to reduce his electricity bill in exchange for hard currency. He sealed the deal with a $960 payment. But when the shop owner called Con Edison a week later to check on the status of his account, he learned the check allegedly sent by the two defendants had bounced.

Today, he is still in debt to the electric company. “Con Edison isn’t giving me any help on this,” said Mendez Rosales, who has managed to keep his business afloat in recent months, despite a pile of unpaid bills and several days without power last month that caused his produce to spoil. “It’s hard because I haven’t been open very long, and I still have to give all the money those women stole from me.”

After swindling their first two victims, Dorta and Garcia Lopez reportedly moved on to fleece three more: a Corona resident, Carlos Duran, who parted with $825; and two more store owners, Jose Gutierrez and Brigida Encarnacion, who lost $2,300 and a whopping $22,000, respectively.

With each new scam, prosecutors alleged the defendants called on Gilrubio to send a fraudulent payment written on temporary credit card checks that he had fished out of his neighbors’ garbage. The two women would then allegedly return to the business owners and hand them an authentic receipt for the check before it had actually cleared.

Meticulous as this plan was, it also left a paper trail that led investigators straight to the suspects. Last month, a real Con Ed official, Anthony Castiglia, whose telephone number was apparently listed on the receipts, notified authorities of a series of complaints about bounced checks from business owners claiming to have been scammed.

Police arrested the trio of alleged scammers last Wednesday. The defendants are charged with four counts of grand larceny and one count of petit larceny. Dorta and Garcia Lopez were released on $50,000 bond each, while Gilrubio was released on his own recognizance. If convicted, each faces up to seven years in prison.

“I was so mad when I saw the women in a (police) lineup on Wednesday,” said Gutierrez, who lost $2,300. “They knew they could walk through the door and offer a good deal to people who aren’t used to having a lot of money. What do you expect us to do when that happens?”

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