Santa Clara County prosecutors on Thursday charged a 59-year-old man, alleging he tricked at least 300 mostly Chinese and Vietnamese victims out of "death benefits" owed to them when their loved ones died.
David Bah Ngo is in custody on grand theft, money laundering, and check fraud charges. His bail was set at $1 million and he was arraigned Thursday afternoon. He was arrested along with Stephanie Tuyet Le, 32, who was arrested on one count of grand theft. She was released on her own recognizance.
Deputy District Attorney Georg Behrens said the amount allgedly embezzled about $200,000. Ngo did not enter a plea. If he is convicted on all counts, he could spend 11 years in prison.
Ngo is being represented by the public defender.
The money Ngo allegedly took, prosecutors said, was supposed to have paid families' death benefits and funeral expenses.
Ngo was president of a now-defunct "club," called Concerned Members Committeee in San Jose. Members would pay a one-time fee to enroll, and then monthly payments of about $35 on the promise that when they died, their loved ones would receive death benefits worth more than what they paid into the system. Promised payouts were to range from between $6,000 to $14,000 .
But many victims, according to prosecutors, said they never got their payments, or if they did, a sliver of what they said was owed to them.
Geoff Wiggs, a consumer attorney in San Mateo, told NBC Bay Area on Thursday that his in-laws fell victim to the alleged scam, after they saw a flier in Vietnamese (PDF) offering the death benefits service. The longer someone paid into the "club," Wiggs said, the more money the person's survivors would expect in return.
Wiggs' sister-in-law Diane Huynh, who now lives in San Francisco, said her mother paid $14,000 into the system over seven years. When the family went to approach Ngo about getting some of the money out early for her mother who is hospice, Ngo was nowhere to be found. Now, like others, they expect they will never see any of their return.
"It is really sad," Huynh said in an interview. "He cheated us from our money."
Ngo's organization at 345 E. Santa Clara Street has since gone out of business, and a "For Rent" sign hung in the window. No one was there on Thursday, when NBC Bay Area visited seeking comment.
Long before Ngo was charged, a website was created to help potential victims unite. Many people claimed that Ngo wouldn't pay for their parents' funerals. One person wrote that his father was a CMC member for eight years, and that the family received nothing, months after he died. "Davie Ba Ngo of CMC is taking in money," the post read, "but not paying out to the family members when they needed. (sic)"
The District Attorney's investigator, Bob Traskowski, put out his contact information on this site, requesting potential victims to contact him at (408) 792-2938 or email@example.com.
Contact Lisa Fernandez at 408-432-4758 or firstname.lastname@example.org.