CAMPBELL -- A 72-year-old man was left heartbroken and bankrupt after a "sweetheart scam" run by a younger woman who was arrested this week at her Elk Grove home, prosecutors said.
The victim told investigators that in April 2009 he was contacted by Samantha Huongthi Pham, 30, a real estate broker who wanted to talk to him about refinancing the Campbell home that he owned.
"As far as we can tell it was a cold call," said Cherie Bourlard, a prosecutor with the Elder Fraud Unit of the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office. "She may have looked at public records and saw that he owned his home free and clear, and the equity in the house was something worth going after."
Bourlard said that upon meeting the victim, Pham flirted with him to the extent that he gave her a diamond ring that once belonged to his ex-wife.
The scam grew from there, Bourlard said. The victim was convinced to put his house up for collateral and use $200,000 of the money to invest in a financial company Pham wanted to start. He also put money down on a $73,000 Lexus that Pham was supposed to make payments on, and maxed out his credit card buying furniture for an office that was later found empty and abandoned.
Once the victim could no longer pay his bills, Pham convinced him to sell his $500,000 house, which entitled her to a $7,000 referral fee.
About five months after first being contacted by Pham, the victim was out of assets and she broke all contact with him, Bourlard said. He later filed for bankruptcy and notified police.
"Ms. Pham criminally took advantage of a lonely, elderly man," she said, adding that the grift is so pervasive that it is known as "the sweetheart scam."
"It is unconscionable," Bourlard said.
When Pham was arrested by Campbell police on Wednesday, she was still in possession of the Lexus, although she had never made a payment, Bourlard said.
She said the repo man who arrived to get the car reported that he'd been to the home several months before to collect a $100,000 BMW.
"Elk Grove police found that she got it from a man she'd met on (online dating service) Match.com," Bourlard said.
According to the district attorney's office, Campbell investigators also found a large quantity of designer Louis Vuitton purses at the home, and records showed that between 2009 and 2012 Pham had lost more than $1 million gambling at Red Hawk Casino in Placerville. She also wired $50,000 of the victim's money to Nevada to pay restitution in a criminal case there. Prosecutors had no further information about that matter.
Bourlard said Pham may have bilked more people they don't know about.
"Luckily, the victim in this case came forward," she said. "Often the victims in these types of crimes are embarrassed and they go unreported."
She urged anyone who believes they or someone they know has been bilked in a "sweetheart scam" or anything similar contact local law enforcement authorities or adult protective services.
Pham, who was arraigned Friday on a felony charge of theft from an elder, faces up to six years in prison if convicted. She remains at the women's facility of the Santa Clara County Jail, with a court date on Jan. 25.
Santa Clara County's 24-hour hotline to report elder abuse can be reached at 408-755-7690 or 1-800-414-2002.
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.