by Scott Spallina, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney

In the last issue, I covered the lessons my mother-in-law, “Mary,” taught me through her encounters with various scam artists she has met over the years. Unfortunately, those incidents were only the tip of the iceberg.

Shortly after Mary’s run-in with the Y2K hucksters, she met a charismatic man who advertised seminars that would “make money for attendees.” His scheme was simple — don’t pay your taxes. He claimed paying taxes was optional; nowhere in the tax code did it say you had to pay. Despite my advice, she supported this man, went to his criminal trial in federal court when he was indicted and was there when he was eventually sentenced to prison. Naturally, he claimed his conviction was the government’s attempt to stop him from “exposing the truth.” The only truth he did expose, however, was that people will believe anything — if its packaged well.

After this man’s incarceration, my wife and I discovered that we were expecting a baby. Mary wanted to insure financial stability for my growing family. She did this by investing in a local company that was going to create a website bigger than Ebay or Amazon — according to the owner. She was encouraged to bring in more people wanting to invest thousands of dollars to get in on the ground floor of this no-lose, get-rich opportunity. The contract they had her sign obligated her to pay monthly fees for their “trainings.” Although nothing else was promised in writing, verbal promises made by the owner during his speeches were plentiful. Articulate, passionate and good looking, he had hotel ballrooms filled with people applauding his high-energy speeches. Then, the government came and closed him down for illegal business practices. I suspect this was all some sort of pyramid scheme disguised as an investment opportunity. It was probably around this time I first heard the phrase, “A pretty package can hide toxic contents.”

Another time, my in-laws were fixing up a rental property and hired a cash-only repairman. They knew a friend of a friend who was unlicensed but known to do side jobs. They gave him money; he did not do the work (no contract was written up). When they hunted him down (literally) for the return of the money, he made excuses as to why he didn’t do the job but couldn’t return the cash. Because of his relationship with the family, tangential as it was, the breach of trust was more painful than that from the slick-talking con artists previously encountered.

It was this experience that led me to join a working group with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA) to write legislation making it a felony crime for an unlicensed contractor to accept money for work.

In the next issue, I will conclude this series by sharing Mary’s encounter with a domestic terrorist group and how she invited a con artist into her home — literally.

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To report suspected elder abuse, contact the Elder Abuse Unit at 808-768-7536  |  ElderAbuse@honolulu.gov

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