King County Sheriff's Office CSO Peter Truong talks about his investigation of Oanh Nguyen (inset) in the Sheriff's White Center storefront. Nguyen allegedly conned many Vietnamese people over a large swath of King County.
After three years, bringing an alleged con artist down
Alleged con artist Oanh Nguyen of Burien, 39, was arrested by the King County Sheriff’s Office in June for investigation of fraud, ID theft, forgery and unlawful issuance of bank checks. Police said she targeted the Vietnamese population of King County for her cons (Nguyen is Vietnamese herself, having moved to the U.S. in 1993), and went about her business largely unchecked for at least three years.
Today, they are trying to find more victims by releasing Nguyen’s photo and descriptions of her crimes in both English and Vietnamese. As a result, the victim calls are now pouring in, and KCSO Community Service Officer Peter Truong, originally from Vietnam, has devoted his recent life to working with those victims alongside KCSO Detective Laura Alspach to build a case that will result in a conviction and, in the words of Truong, “stop this lady.”
Police said many of Nguyen’s victims were contacted at the White Center DSHS building on 15th Ave. S.W., where Vietnamese immigrants can often be found applying for social assistance programs (there, she would allegedly ask them to cash a check for her, which they did and then were left on the hook when the check turned out bad). She also allegedly masqueraded as a mortgage broker, accepting payments from clients that never made it to the bank but instead lined her own coffers.
The first sign, three years ago
Truong said KCSO first heard of Nguyen in 2010. Shortly after she had placed an ad for real estate services in a Vietnamese newspaper, they heard from her first alleged victim. A man had answered the ad for help refinancing his home. Truong said Nguyen, who speaks fluent English, helped the man with his refinance paperwork, and then offered to do more.
“Because you speak no English, from now on I’m still working on your loan so give your payments to me and I’ll give them to your lender,” the victim recalled being told.
Trusting the woman who had helped him navigate a very complicated process, he started sending checks to Nguyen. Several months and $25,000 later, he received a letter from his bank saying the home was being foreclosed. He called police and an investigation was launched, but it was too late for him. Truong said the man and his family of four lost their home in the aftermath.
As the investigation into Nguyen’s dealings moved along, Truong said it was discovered she likely had victims as far as Renton and Kirkland. As a result, the investigation was turned over to the state’s Dept. of Revenue.
Over three years nothing happened at the state level, according to Truong, and Nguyen continued with her alleged cons unchecked.
Picking the scent back up
It wasn’t until early April when KCSO received a few complaints from people at the DSHS in White Center who said they had been duped by Nguyen.
Truong said Det. Alspach (to whom he “gives all the credit” for Nguyen’s arrest) decided to take the case on and asked him to help her as an interpreter and fellow investigator. Truong, who has worked at KCSO for 25 years, came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1975.
He agreed, and the two started interviewing victims who were slowly coming forward. The stories, he said, were tragic. In White Center, the modus operandi was pretty consistent as Nguyen would allegedly hang out at the DSHS building and look for Vietnamese people waiting in line for social security interviews and the like. She would approach them in line, or in the waiting room, and offer her services.
“When a person who is so good-looking and nice and speaks English well offers you as service, why not take it?” Truong said. “People believed in her.”
Instead of waiting in line for hours for a conversation and paperwork that would be rife with confusion due to language barriers and unfamiliarity with U.S. systems, Nguyen allegedly offered a fast track, posing as a DSHS employee who was there to help the Vietnamese. She would help them fill out their paperwork, and then the con would allegedly kick in. Having established a relationship with her victims, Nguyen would allegedly launch into any number of sob stories – from going through a nasty divorce to opening a new business and needing cash to pay her employees. Whatever the lead-in was, police said the end goal was to have her victims cash a bad check at their bank and hand her the money.
A few days later, the victims would undoubtedly receive a letter or call from their bank telling them their account was overdrawn because that deposited check was bad. They were left with massive overdrafts, ranging anywhere from two to four thousand dollars a victim.
“Vietnamese people have a tendency to believe, and she is such a sweet talker and intelligent,” Truong said. “All the victims told me they felt sorry for her and the situation and she helped them with the paperwork (otherwise they would be stuck there forever), so let me do something to pay her back.”
While her alleged victims ranged from 22 to the elderly and male to female, the con remained consistent. Truong said the financial hardships that followed for the victims were harsh as they not only had to deal with the loss of money on an already tight budget, but unforgiving banks who would garnish wages to pay off the overdraft and family members who were enraged that the victim fell for Nguyen’s alleged ruse. More than a few men, Truong said, were threatened with divorce from their wives.
Challenges in getting victims to come forward
Truong said a large reason Nguyen was able to get away with her alleged crimes for so long came down to her target in that she may have known they were unlikely to go to police.
“They already go through jail in Vietnam, they had a rough time in Vietnam and now they come here and get ripped off,” he said. “I want those people to know that we have justice here, we have people to protect them, not like in Vietnam. We want to let them know that the police here are here to protect them and to serve them.”
Language barriers and unfamiliarity with the U.S. likely played a role as well.
“You know where to go, you speak the language,” Truong said, speaking of the average American. “These people come to the U.S. and don’t have time to learn the language, culture and justice system. And they are scared of police over there (in Vietnam). They can arrest you for no reason, they can kill you for no reason. You don’t trust police; you don’t want to have nothing to do with them whatsoever.”
Truong said Det. Alspach and he worked long hours on the case with no overtime pay, taking calls from victims and setting up interviews whenever was convenient in order to build their case. Once the arrest was made in June and they were able to send a callout to local media asking for more victims to come forward, the list continued to grow.
“You cannot betray a family like that,” he said, “I did whatever I could to stop this lady. It had to stop somewhere.”
It’s now a waiting game to find out if King County prosecutors will bring charges against Nguyen for her alleged crimes, and in the meantime she is free on bail. Truong said he’s heard reports from victims that they have heard from Nguyen allegedly promising that the money will be paid back and asking that they don’t talk to “Peter” (Truong’s first name) anymore. KCSO has issued a trespass order so she can no longer be around the DSHS office in White Center.
“At least we stopped her for now,” he said. “At least the public is aware of what’s going on.”
We spoke with one of Nguyen’s alleged victims, Vietnamese immigrant My Le and her daughter Thao. Thao told their story, and it matched so many others. While at the DSHS office in White Center, she said they were approached by Nguyen. She said she was a DSHS employee “who usually helps out the Vietnamese people and she loves to help Vietnamese people.”
“She asks for all of our information … and she was talking really friendly and close and was helpful and looks like whatever she could do, she would do for us.”
My and Thao were told they looked like family, and quickly came to trust Nguyen.
Thao went into a DSHS office for a meeting, and when she came back out Nguyen and her mom were gone. She found out later they had gone to a bank in Southcenter together because My was told the story of an ugly divorce and a husband who would take money from Nguyen’s account. She allegedly asked My to help her out by cashing a check for $2,500, which she did.
Two days later, the bank called My tell her she was overdrafted $2,450 and they would be forced to take her SSI payments to pay off the overdraft until it was gone.
“I’m so mad and my mom is so worried,” Thao said. “She cries every day, she’s stressful every day.”
“Why do you do that to old people that don’t even know how to speak one word of English?,” she asked, “And you are a Vietnamese person too. She has good English, she has enough conditions to get a good job. Why doesn’t she do that?
“I would tell her: If I had good English and looked like you, I would do that.”