The offer sounded strange but plausible: Barbara Bennett identified herself as an agent of an obscure government program that every seven years is mandated to sell off surplus homes and land at pennies on the dollar.
To the 49-year-old West Ashley man the deal seemed legitimate, especially when compared with other land ads he'd seen on late-night infomercials. Additionally, she boasted of having an inside track to acquiring foreclosed homes before they went up for auction.
The man, who asked not to be identified because he was embarrassed, told police he gave Bennett $103,000 in exchange for contracts on 37 acres and 54 homes. None of the property ever materialized.
Last week authorities expanded their probe into Bennett's activities, saying the woman's dealings could be part of a scam never seen before in Charleston. Victims say they were led to believe they were participating in what police say is a bogus and nonexistent government Grant Pacing Program.
Bennett, 53, faces at least four counts of obtaining signature or property under false pretense. Other potential victims have come forward or are awaiting to be interviewed, Charleston County sheriff's Detective Kip Cooke said. A computer found in Bennett's home was seized.
Bennett, who was released on $5,000 bail, could not be reached for comment. Earlier this week a woman standing outside Bennett's modest one-story house on Moultrie Street near Upper King Street, said she was unavailable.
Another of her alleged victims said Friday he was introduced to Bennett through friends in the community. He said her credentials were bolstered by an award plaque she showed off, along with trophies, appreciation letters and rosters and pictures of property she had access to, sometimes in other states. He didn't see anything wrong with meeting her as many as 12 times at the Burger King on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard to give her cash and checks because it was easy to drive to, he said.
"One-hundred percent. I just knew she was legitimate," said the man who claimed to be out $11,000 after dealing with Bennett.
"She comforted you; she was real easy to talk to," he said, adding that she told him the turnaround time for buying some homes was as short as 30 days.
Charleston County's small claims court records show Bennett is no stranger to complaints from people she's done business with. Thousands of dollars in judgments from at least seven cases in the last two years have been filed against her.
In one case, an Arizona man said he paid her $8,000 for the purchase of bank-owned foreclosures. When the deal collapsed, he demanded his money back. "Nothing has arrived, and Ms. Bennett does not take my calls anymore," he wrote.
Another plaintiff who said he pursued housing grants with Bennett said he met the woman — whom he called "Ms. Barbara" — at a bar and that she identified herself as a teacher at Burke Middle School. The Charleston County School District on Friday was searching to verify if she has an employment history with them.
Bennett responded to his complaint by saying she felt she was the victim of a scam and would do whatever it took to get him his money back.
"I take fill (sic) responsibility on the case," she wrote. "When I say fill responsibility, I mean I feel responsible for what happen (sic) and I feel indebted to rectify the matter." A judge eventually entered a $7,580 award against her.
Sheriff's officials said they expect the probe to expand. They also want to get the word out that sophisticated cons are being hatched in the Charleston area and may attempt to gain a degree of legitimacy amid the confusion surrounding the government's recent bailout debates.
"It's like that same old cliche" about something too good to be true, warned Sheriff's Office spokesman Maj. John Clark. "Before you know it, you've been scammed."
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551, or firstname.lastname@example.org.