Big heart, big scam

It’s early afternoon on May 17 and Alvina Popke is pushing a cart full of groceries out to her car at the Fred Meyer parking lot on the Benson Highway.

Renton woman

loses $6,000 in pigeon drop

It’s early afternoon on May 17 and Alvina Popke is pushing a cart full of groceries out to her car at the Fred Meyer parking lot on the Benson Highway.

A nice-looking woman stops her. She’s looking for Wendy’s. It’s across the street, Popke says.

But the conversation doesn’t stop there.

The woman tells Popke that she is going home to Africa that very night, but first she has to give away a whole bunch of money her brother left her when he died.

She has an official-looking letter from a lawyer that spells out how she has to spend the money. It has to go to a charity or maybe a church.

Can Popke help her?

For Popke, the answer is easy: The Renton Salvation Army, where she volunteers at the food bank and is a member of the Salvation Army Church.

The woman who says she’s from Africa even stopped a second woman walking by to ask for help giving away her money. She agrees, and for now seems like someone willing to help others.

That description fits Popke, too, and it’s one of the reasons that within an hour or so, much of Popke’s small savings would be gone.

First, the woman wants proof that Popke and the other woman are self-sufficient and won’t use the money for themselves. That proof comes by showing cash, lots of it.

Popke’s bank, First Savings Bank of Renton, is closed on Saturday. But the helpful second woman offers to go to her bank, the Kent East Hill branch of Bank of America on 104th Avenue Southeast.

Each of the two women is to get her money there. The nice woman already has her cash, two big wads of it.

Popke of Renton, who is 83, agrees to drive all three to the Kent bank. The woman from Africa is sweating profusely and Popke takes a tissue and gently wipes the sweat from her face.

That was then.

“I was so nice to her,” Popke said. “Now, I hope she rots in hell.”

Popke is a victim of one of the oldest scams around, the pigeon drop. She’s the pigeon, the victim. The only one. The second woman was part of the scam all along.

Often, according to Penny Bartley, a spokeswoman for the Renton Police Depatment, the victim of such a scam is embarrassed that they were duped and will not report the crime.

Such crimes pick up in the summer, Bartley said, when people are outside, in a friendly mood because of the warm weather – and willing to listen to a compelling story.

The actual crime – the theft of Popke’s $6,000 – was committed in Kent. The Police Department there is investigating the crime.

The crime has nearly devastated Popke financially. She’s embarrassed and has shed tears over her loss. She readily describes herself as a “dummy.”

But she’s willing to tell her story publicly if it will help someone else avoid the scammers.

At the same time, she’s grateful. Things could have turned out much worse. Her car wasn’t stolen and she wasn’t shot or stuck with a knife.

“I am still alive,” she said.

Still, she’s the victim of two con artists. At the heart of the scam is separating Popke from her money and the ability of the two cons to immediately gain Popke’s trust and confidence. They made her feel trusting by placing their trust in her.

The woman who said she was from Africa even asked Popke to drive her to the airport that night.

In reality, she said, “Everything coming out of their mouths was a lie.”

The original scammer never actually told Popke how much money she would give her for her charity. But she was feeling pressured to do something right away. The money was in a bundle, and it’s likely the core was just paper or cardboard. The second pigeon-turned-scammer never did reveal her charity.

At one point Popke became concerned for the woman’s safety when she displayed the cash.

“I said, ‘Put that money away’,” Popke related. “Someone is going to hit you over the head.”

Popke was moved by this unexpected chance to help the Salvation Army. It motivated her all the way to the end.

“I am all for the Salvation Army,” she said. “The Salvation Army could sure use it.”

Popke had spoken with the first suspect for a short time, when she struck up the conversation with the “stranger.” The second woman read the lawyer’s letter and remarked at the size of the inheritance.

So far, as Popke related, no lights were going off that she was in trouble.

At the Kent bank, the first woman insisted that Popke park in front of a dental office in a parking lot above the bank, reached by going up a short steep incline.

She parked facing the dental office, so the bank was out of view, behind her. She had no way of knowing whether the second “victim” actually entered the bank. She didn’t.

The second woman returned to the car with two envelopes, supposedly with $5,000 in each. The first suspect seemed satisfied.

Then, it was Popke’s turn. “She said, ‘Now you go down there’,” Popke related.

Because Popke’s bank is in Renton – and closed for the day – she took out a cash advance from her Bank of America credit card. It was all the money she had in her savings account.

She returned with two envelopes, each with $3,000 inside.

Earlier, the first woman and Popke had taken a short walk with the cash to prove to the second “pigeon” that they were trustworthy.

Now, it was time for another show of trust. Popke was asked to place her $6,000 in a duffle bag carried by the second woman. She did. The two scammers then went for what they said would be a short walk. They never returned. Likely, they had a car waiting.

It took about 10 minutes, but Popke realized she had been scammed. The light went on.

“I started to cry,” she said.

She panicked and asked for help first at a nearby restaurant and then at the dental office. She called police.

“It’s a lesson well-learned,” she said.

A bank employee had asked Popke casually why she was withdrawing so much money. In answering, Popke said she lied, that she needed the money for her daughter’s wedding.

She said she didn’t want to tell the truth about the financial arrangements she was making because the employee might try to stop her. At that point she still believed that she was about to help the Salvation Army. Any underlying intuition that something might be wrong was overridden by that goal. It’s a common reaction among those who see a chance to help others.

She gave police what she said was a “good description” of the two women. Both are African-American, but police told Popke the first woman isn’t from Africa. She was 40 to 45 years old. The second one was in her 50s, about 5-foot-6 and weighed about 145 pounds.

Later, Popke went to her own bank to withdraw $6,000 to pay off the cash advance. With the help of her daughter, Gayle Richards of Kent, she tried but failed to get the finance charges on the cash advance reversed. Richards said officials above the local branch level wouldn’t approve reversing the charges.

That $6,000 was a financial cushion for Popke. A trip to Montana and farther east has been called off. And, she wanted to make some improvements to her home.

She lives on her Social Security benefit and her husband Elmer’s small pension from the Boeing Co. He died in 1997. The bills keep coming.

“I am waiting for my Social Security check to come in,” she said.

Dean A. Radford can be reached at 425-255-3484, ext. 5050, or at

How to help

A special account has been set up at US Bank in downtown Renton to help Alvina Popke recover from her financial loss.

Alvina Popke Relief Fund

c/o U.S. Bank

858 S. 2nd St.

Renton, WA 98055

Readers also can make donations at any branch of US Bank; make checks payable to “Alvina Popke Relief Fund.”