Police seek Toys for Tots scam artist

Two area businesses warn of a scam artist purporting herself as a representative of Toys for Tots, a foundation aiming to serve nearly a half-million metro Atlanta kids this holiday season.

They describe her as a smooth-talker, dressed like she means business.

Tara Friedman, an event manager at Stars and Strikes in Dacula, said the woman approached her Friday, offering to sign up the business as a Toys for Tots sponsor and a drop-off point for gifts. Friedman provided her with business cards but didn't fork over any cash.

"We were pretty tapped out for donations," she said. "It seemed very fishy."

Susan Mattox, owner of a Barberitos franchise in Winder, wasn't so fortunate.

Mattox said the woman spun the same ruse for her later Friday, offering to feature the

business on a radio station remote at a local Wal-Mart. She then handed over Friedman's card, writing on it a free birthday party for six at the Dacula bowling alley, Mattox said.

So Mattox handed over $50.

"I said, 'I really don't have the money, but I'd trust in God that he'd provide for me.' She said, 'God bless you,'" Mattox said. "She's very convincing. It's a pretty slick scheme."

Mattox reported the fraud to Winder police. Both alleged victims describe the impostor as a black woman in her mid- to late 30s, about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, dressed head to toe in black. She identified herself as Lt. Mary Anderson and offered a Verizon Wireless business card, Friedman said.

"'Tis the season for scammers," said Friedman. "Think about it -- you can get business cards everywhere."

Winder police were not available this week to provide an official suspect description or further details about the case. A spokesman with the Barrow County Sheriff's Office said his agency had not heard of similar cases.

Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli said local detectives have received no reports involving the charity.

Carolyn Salvador, spokeswoman for North Atlanta Toys for Tots, said a team of 10 volunteers works a five-county region that includes Gwinnett, Barrow and Walton counties. Each is required to carry a valid Toys for Tots picture ID that's backed by a Marine Corps seal.

The alleged scam is a first for the agency, Salvador said.

"We're busting our rear-ends, trying to get toys for children," she said. "Given the bad situation in the economy, I think people are getting more desperate. We're hoping this is an isolated incident."

Mattox said she perennially supports the charity. It never dawned on her to be leery.

"I should have dug a little more into it," she said.

Salvador said the Atlanta-area Toy For Tots, the largest division in the nation, has set goals this year of brightening Christmas for more than 450,000 children by way of 900,000 toys. Rising unemployment and a sour economy prompted an influx of toy requests, and the foundation is trying to pull together 180,000 more gifts than last year, she said.

Officials hope news of criminal behavior doesn't hamper contributions from the business community.

"If people don't give, there's going to be a lot of disappointed children on Christmas morning," Salvador said.