BATON ROUGE — New victims of a perplexing phone scam have come forward to UWK after a Victim’s Voice featured a Baton Rouge business owner who lost hundreds of dollars.
The scam features a man who identifies himself as “Willie Johnson,” preying on the vulnerabilities of his victims.
“He was so convincing”
Anthony Sanders tells UWK that he was targeted by “Johnson” over a year ago. Sanders says that he remembers “Johnson” calling him, saying that he regularly visits his business.
Sanders says that some of the same methods he used to trick fellow business owner David Belanger were also used on him. Sanders says that “Johnson” mentioned local spots near his business and used other cunning talk. “He was so convincing,” Sanders said.
“Johnson” reportedly told Sanders that his transmission stopped working while he was traveling in Mississippi. He said that there was a mechanic nearby who would be able to fix his vehicle, but that he was short $300.
Sanders said that “Johnson” asked him to give his wife $300 in cash. He claimed that she would then write Sanders a check. But when Sanders asked whether his wife could just use Venmo rather than giving him a check, the conversation ended.
“He sounded like a salesman”
Sanders believes “Johnson” looks at business owners’ information online to get to know them. He believes he uses this information to craft a believable story that makes it seem like he knows the victim.
“He sounded like a salesman who can get you to buy just about anything,” said Sanders.
Other business owners have posted on the UWK Facebook page that they have fallen victim to very similar scams. Many indicated they were duped by the same person claiming to “Johnson”
Same scam, different victim
Belanger was conned out of $900 last month by the same “Willie Johnson”. The man claimed to have worked on a project at Belanger’s home and knew enough information to sound believable and convince Belanger to write a $900 check to a man named Calvin Bethley. In the same scam, “Johnson” tried to get more money from Belanger, but this time a man named Frederick Heatley showed up at his home for the money. Belanger was able to stop payment on a $500 check before it was cashed.
Belanger says that after UWK featured his story last week, Heatley showed up back at his home banging on the doors. Belanger called 9-1-1, and Baton Rouge police were dispatched to his home downtown and questioned Heatley.
Who’s Willie Johnson?
During the questioning, Belanger says that Heatley admitted that “Willie Johnson” was actually Calvin Bethley—the same man who showed up at Belanger’s home the first time to collect a $900 check. But despite the admission, Belanger says that BRPD released Heatley.
Belanger says that he was told by BRPD’s Financial Crimes Unit that there was no crime. After re-explaining the story to the officer and detailing how he is fearful for his safety, an investigator was assigned to the case.
“The single most disheartening moment of this entire ordeal has been the first moments of speaking with the head of the Financial Crimes unit after this story was published,” Belanger said. “Rather than acting on the original police report that stated that a possible scam took place, the officer admitted that he did not assign a detective because he didn’t see any evidence of a crime.”
Belanger says that the officer he spoke with made the whole ordeal appear like it was a poor decision on his part to loan money to someone he didn’t know.
Belanger says that even after Heatley admitted that “Willie Johnson” wasn’t a real person, he called him to discuss repayment of his $900. Belanger says that “Johnson” was agitated on the call, and “Johnson” informed him that he is legally able to carry a gun in the state.
Belanger reported the threat to BRPD, who told him they are investigating.
Belanger is frustrated with the police handling of the investigation. He says that he has been able to pinpoint similar scams by the same men over the past eight years. UWK uncovered that in 2015, Bethley was charged with six counts of theft and five counts of identity theft. He was convicted on count five, which was attempted identity theft of more than $1,000.
Belanger also researched the phone number “Johnson” used on the website NumberGuru, where he came across comments indicating that others had been targeted by the same phone number in similar scams.
“What should have started off as an exploratory discussion (by BRPD) about the conditions of a possible crime … began as an insult to my decision-making skills,” Belanger said. “I assure you, my decision-making skills, along with those of any other victim of a crime, are never a factor in another person’s decision to commit a crime.”
In the event of suspicious calls, the public is encouraged to report such incidents to the authorities or seek assistance from the Attorney General’s hotline to address potential fraud.