‘Free money’ bait-and-switch targets area’s elderly, disabled

Cheryl Johnson Manuel answered the door at the Syam Tax Service office on Cullen Boulevard in Houston but declined to speak to Examiner reporters.

In the last few months, hundreds of elderly and disabled Southeast Texans have been scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars, an investigation by The Examiner has revealed. The victims thought they were claiming a portion of federal stimulus funds set aside to assist low-income Social Security recipients, when in fact no such provision exists.

Instead, false tax returns were submitted to the IRS in their names, with roughly half of the ill-gotten refund going to a third party. Once discovered, the victims are on the hook for the entire sum.

Those taken in by the scam were targeted by a group operating under the name “Syam Investments,” who filed the bogus tax returns with the IRS. Now local, state and federal officials are following the paper trail leading to a ring of perpetrators hijacking senior citizens’ identities and robbing the victims of their money and their sense of security.

On hallowed ground

Mary Williams doesn’t get around as well as she used to since suffering a stroke a few years back. Her finances have seen better days, too. Waiting in line at her church’s regular “fourth Saturday” food pantry giveaway and wondering how she’d stretch her Social Security check through an entire month, she prayed for some financial relief.Williams thought her prayers had been answered when Myra Jackson Jones approached the Rev. L.A. Walters of Lily of the Valley Church of God in Christ in Anahuac and offered to help parishioners like Williams get access to a federal stimulus rebate.

“She said she’d help us get the money we were entitled to,” Williams said. “She said she was with the government and she was here to help us.”

According to the Rev. Walters, Jones only helped herself.

“She made a nice lick off the people in this community,” Walters said. “Myra Jones really pulled a quick one on the people of Southeast Texas. She used the church to scam our community, and I think she very well knew what she was doing.”

The church’s pastor said he had no reason to doubt Jones when she showed up to the church offering assistance to the masses seeking help during this economic recession.

“Civic groups, community outreach programs, the sheriff’s office — they all come here to reach the people because they know we help people here,” he said. “I’ve never had anyone do something like this before.”

Walters said roughly 300 people sought help from Jones through his church, all giving her their driver’s license, Social Security number and banking information. Further investigation into Jones’ “stimulus refund” outreach revealed she also visited churches in Buna and neighboring communities selling the same pipe dream. Walters’ wife, Beverly, said that Jones not only helped herself to parishioners’ money and personal information while she was in Anahuac, but also signed up to receive free food from the church as well.

Jones, who has a Beaumont address listed on her driver’s license but says that she lives in Pearland, also brought a few friends with her to stock up on free groceries courtesy of Lily of the Valley’s kindness – Diana Broussard of Port Arthur and daughter Erica Broussard of Nederland.

A little help from friends

Diana Broussard has also been making a name for herself as a purveyor of the make-believe Social Security stimulus, signing up scores of individuals for the “program” out of her Port Arthur home on Waco Avenue. Like Jones, Broussard has targeted church congregations and through word-of-mouth has brought clients from as far away as Kountze and Jasper County to her doorstep.

More than a dozen visitors showed up to Broussard’s home Tuesday, Aug. 14, seeking services during the two hours the home was under surveillance. Aside from customers seeking federal funds, an officer from the Port Arthur Police Department also called on Broussard during the same timeframe. Declining to give an official statement to The Examiner, the officer did advise he was at the home following up on a complaint that Broussard was performing fraudulent tax returns in her home. Broussard gave the officer a blank form she alleges all her clients fill out, giving her the authority to forward client information to Syam Tax Services and, she seemed to believe, absolving her of any wrongdoing.

The Examiner spoke with multiple Broussard clients, all of whom said they never signed any form – only provided paperwork for a federal stimulus rebate with copies of their driver’s license, Social Security number and banking information.

Theodore Victor was a client of Broussard’s, and he is adamant he never signed anything.

“A lady in the church talked to me and said I might qualify for some money since I was on disability,” Victor said. “Word of mouth spreads through Port Arthur; news is floating around everywhere. I run into people all the time who say they just got some money – and they say they got it from going to Diana Broussard.

“She said the government owes people this money – that it was stimulus from Social Security. I didn’t know about an income tax return until I called the IRS.”

Victor said he called the IRS when he noticed the deposit in his bank account came from the U.S. Treasury as a tax refund with no mention of stimulus attached to the deposit. The amount deposited into Victor’s account was a little more than $700, but information from the IRS contends that much more than that was awarded to Victor under the pretense he was working in 2011, with approximately half of the tax refund being forwarded to a second recipient, although the IRS wouldn’t divulge who the second recipient was. Victor says he hadn’t worked since 2003, and never told Broussard that he had.

Victor has since filed charges against Broussard for identity fraud through the Port Arthur Police Department and the IRS, but the IRS is currently holding Victor liable for the entire fraudulent tax refund. The same is true for dozens of Jones’ and Broussard’s clients, who now face repaying both the money deposited in their accounts and the account of the unidentified third party.

“The IRS said I had to prove I didn’t know she was filing these false tax returns for me or else I’m responsible for everything,” the 61-year-old said. “I can maybe make payments or something, but I’m very worried. There’s no telling what they can do with your identity. This could be just the beginning.”

Better Business Bureau of Southeast Texas Dispute Resolution Director Jay Sheppard and Brand Manager Michelle Brewer are likewise worried this most recent rash of complaints is snowballing into something bigger. Information compiled at the local BBB lists dozens of citizen complaints against Jones, Broussard and Syam Investments, as well as complaints from banks in Groves, Port Arthur, Anahuac and Buna alleging bank customers are receiving an influx of what’s believed to be fraudulently obtained tax returns.

Following up on tips forwarded to the BBB, Brewer and Sheppard have been in contact with authorities from the Port Arthur Police Department, the Texas Department of Insurance, the Area Agency on Aging in Southeast Texas, the Office of the Attorney General, and the IRS.

Chambers County Sheriff Joe LaRive, who serves the residents of Anahuac, is also working with outside investigators to get to the bottom of the stimulus/fraudulent tax return scam being carried out on his constituents. LaRive told The Examiner he couldn’t divulge too much information on an active case, but did say he is currently working with the Office of the Inspector General out of Houston and an IRS agent out of New York.

Two, maybe three sides to every storyher living room. Upon hearing a brief introduction, Broussard stated that she “don’t talk to nobody” before losing her previous cheerful demeanor and unceremoniously ending the interview. Her friend, Myra Jones, was a bit more conversational when she was questioned about allegations she was swindling elderly citizens by filing false tax returns on their behalf without their knowledge.

“I didn’t want to do it,” Jones said, adding that all she did was provide a “referral service” to Syam Tax Services in Dallas and Houston, and that the effort wasn’t worth the payout. “I didn’t make anything – not anything significant,” she said. Jones received $50 per client she referred to Syam, taken from the 50 percent the company received from fraudulent tax returns filed using the organization’s many pseudonyms.

“All I can say is whatever is done in Dallas, I’m not aware of it,” Jones said. “Once I accepted information, I’m not aware of what’s done after that. Whatever is being done, it isn’t being done locally; here in this area, nothing is being done wrong. I know that.”

Jones wasn’t as confident about Syam when asked if she felt the company was up to no good.

“I did,” she said, claiming she quit referring clients to the company at the beginning of July. “That’s why I left it alone.” Jones also wanted to reiterate to her former clientele, “To my knowledge, I was completely honest. I was completely honest — to the best of my knowledge.”

I am Syam

Owning and operating Syam Investments Houston, Syam Investments Dallas, Syam Investments New Orleans, Syam Tax Services in Dallas, Syan Investments in Dallas, Niia Shamr Insurance in Dallas, Syam Home Healthcare in Dallas and Five Mill Records in Dallas, businessman Shannon Mays has an iron in many fires. Still, The Examiner caught up with Mays outside his Dallas office to inquire as to the allegations of tax fraud and identity theft in Southeast Texas linked to his businesses.

Mays said his companies encompassed many facets of service, but all the businesses were legitimate enterprises.

“No one has filed a complaint with me,” he said. Mays later said an officer from the Port Arthur Police Department had contacted him about allegations of improperly using someone’s identification, but it didn’t seem significant to him at the time. “Anyone can find me anytime just like you did,” he said. “It’s not hard to reach me.”

Mays said his company is in possession of forms signed by all its clients giving Syam Tax Services the authority to perform 2011 tax returns, and has never advertised any stimulus rebate.

“Those women (Broussard and Jones) aren’t my employees; they just refer people to me, like anyone can. They get a $50 referral fee, but they don’t work for me. All my employees have to pass background checks.”

According to Mays, representatives from his company call the phone number listed on the form provided on a referral basis from Broussard and Jones to “verify they are right” although neither woman collected phone numbers from their clients/victims.

“I see that I’m going to have to double-check the referrals I get from them,” he said. “Whatever it is they’re doing, you need to talk to them. I run an honest business.”

However, Mays refused to allow reporters into his “honest business” offices in Dallas and Houston and wouldn’t consent to his photograph being taken, stating, “I’m a very private person.” Modesty aside, Mays did seem upset by the media attention and vowed “to find out what the problem is down there.”

Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Baylor Wortham doesn’t share Mays’ bashfulness, but did have something in common with the Dallas tax preparer in vowing to follow up on what Broussard and Jones are up to in Southeast Texas.

“It may be something simple that blows this up in their face,” Wortham said, “but I’m interested enough to find it.”

“A lot of these actors think if they use refillable cards, they’ll bypass wire fraud charges,” Wortham mused, perhaps in an effort to bypass justice. “But that isn’t going to be the case. If they’re transferring money fraudulently, it’s still the same crime.”

Fred Davis contributed to this report. Jennifer Johnson can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 231, or by e-mail at jennifer [at] theexaminer [dot] com.