Rouse Co. secretary fends off con artist Woman's skepticism about phone call was well-placed

August 02, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Executive secretary Sharon Huffer worried when she got a phone call recently telling her that her boss -- Mathias DeVito, chairman of the board of the Rouse Co. -- had been injured in a car accident and needed money.

The caller, who said he was a Maryland State Police officer, instructed Huffer to wire the money through American Express, according to Howard County police.

Huffer's first reaction was to begin gathering several hundred dollars, according to police. But her worry soon turned to skepticism. "As he went on with his story this just did not sound right," Huffer said yesterday.

A phone call proved that DeVito was at home and that the Rouse Co. -- known for building Columbia and malls across America -- had nearly fallen victim to a con artist, officials said.

The June 24 scam "preyed on people's worst fears," said Anthony Deering, president and chief executive officer of Rouse.

Rouse officials called in the Howard police, and the phone company traced a subsequent call to a New Orleans pay phone.

Police have no further leads, and the case will remain inactive until there is more information, said Sgt. Steven Keller, a Howard police spokesman.

Rouse officials decided to put the local business community on alert. Thecompany sent a memo detailing the scam to members of the Greater Baltimore Committee last month.

"We wanted to prevent anyone else from being victimized," Deering said.

In the memo, Deering described the con man as intelligent and well-spoken and said it seemed the man had done his homework. The caller first determined that DeVito was not in the office and hours later called about the phony accident.

The man instructed Huffer to send the money, allowing it to be picked up without identification. He told her to put on a questionnaire that is needed to pick up the funds only one question -- "What's our year?" The question would be answered "1939" by the person who picked up the money. That is the year in which the Rouse Co. was founded.

FBI officials said a handful of such cases are reported every year. They generally come in waves as scam artists move into an area, are discovered and move on, said Kevin Perkins, an FBI supervisory agent for Baltimore.

"If that happened there, it would not surprise me if it happened again in the near future," Perkins said.

Pub Date: 8/02/96

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