BATON ROUGE — A local business owner is speaking out after being entangled in a perplexing phone scam that lost him hundreds of dollars.
It was June 26 when David Belanger, owner of Belanger Interiors, received a phone call from an individual claiming to be a former worker on one of Belanger’s projects. The caller, seeking financial assistance, convinced Belanger to provide a small loan for equipment. However, what initially appeared to be a genuine request quickly unfolded into a troubling phone scam.
Tricked by kindness
According to Belanger’s account, the call came from a number with the caller ID displaying “Deanna Johnson.” Belanger tells UWK that he was surprised to hear an older gentleman on the other end of the call. He introduced himself as “Willie Johnson,” a man who claims he worked as a bricklayer on one of Belanger’s earlier projects. Belanger tells UWK that he believes the name “Willie Johnson” is an alias, and not the actual name of the person on the phone call.
He claimed to be involved in a bricklaying job at the new Georgia Pacific Plant Improvement in Port Hudson and needed funds to replace a broken mortar mixer. The man claimed that the construction superintendent was furious and threatened to fire him over the broken machine. He asked for $700 to help purchase a $2,000 used mortar mixer.
Belanger says that the man’s story was vague, and looking back he realized that the conversation forced him to fill in some of the missing gaps of information about their connection. The caller also appealed to Belanger’s kindness as a “generous man who would talk with the workers.” This is what caused Belanger to trust “Johnson.”
“Bad with numbers”
Belanger says the man sounded genuine, humble, and embarrassed in his plea for help. Belanger spoke with his husband about lending Johnson the money. They even agreed that “Johnson” could pay them back by doing work around their home rather than paying back with money.
The man asked that the check be made out to his cousin, Calvin Bethley, who would pick up the check for him. Belanger says that Bethley arrived in a black Jeep Cherokee.
The man, identified as Calvin Bethley on a driver’s license provided to Belanger, is seen on surveillance video entering the home on June 27. Once inside, Belanger says that Bethley claimed that “Johnson” was “bad with numbers” and actually needed $900. Belanger says he began to sense that something was off, but still wrote the check for $900. Bethley said they would pay the money back in two weeks.
Belanger says that “Johnson” called him later that day to thank him for “saving his life.” He then proceeded to ask for an additional $500 to pay for a bigger trailer to move the mixer. Belanger reluctantly agreed to help, but he told “Johnson” this would be the last loan. Once again, “Johnson” asked for the check to be written to a different name.
Based on Belanger’s suspicions, he called the previous brick contractor for the chimney project to verify if “Willie Johnson” worked on the project. However, the brick contractor didn’t answer. After a Google search, Belanger discovered that Bethley, one of the individuals sent to collect one of the checks, had a history of criminal behavior — including collecting $3,000 from phone scams from 2013-2015. UWK uncovered that in 2015, Bethley was charged with six counts of theft ($750-$5,000) and five counts of identity theft (more than $1,000). Bethley was convicted on Count 5, which was “Attempt Identity Theft More than $1,000.”
Belanger says that he confronted the second man sent to pick up the check. The man, who Belanger says provided identification identifying himself as “Fred” Heatley, seemed surprised and claimed to have no knowledge about Calvin’s past.
Based on the interaction with Fred and the information he found online, Belanger says that he issued a stop payment on the $500 check.
In an attempt to recover his money, Belanger reached out to Johnson and requested proof of identification, but Johnson became increasingly agitated during the conversation. Later that evening, Belanger says he started receiving texts from the same phone number that “Johnson” was using but from someone claiming to be “Johnson’s” niece. During the exchange, Belanger asked for his money to be returned by noon the next day.
Belanger says he also researched the phone number on the website NumberGuru where he came across comments indicating that others had been targeted by the same phone number in similar scams.
Belanger also spoke with his contractor and said there was no record of a “Willie Johnson” working on the project at Belanger’s home.
Belanger has taken action and reported the incidents to the Baton Rouge Police Department, but he says that he is still waiting to hear from a detective.
The case serves as a cautionary tale and a reminder for individuals to remain vigilant against phone scams. 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.
Belanger’s hope is that by sharing his experience, others will be better equipped to recognize and avoid such deceptive practices in the future.