About 2 1/2 years ago, an elderly Hilton Head Island resident received an unexpected phone call.
The woman -- who asked that her name not be used -- listened to the caller's enthusiastic pitch for an elaborate investment plan. If she wanted in on it, she'd have to contribute to a group called Heritage Deposit Brokers, he told her.
The caller promised substantial return on a low-risk, long-term certificate of deposit, which would pay more interest than any bank could.
He assured her that several national banks were partners with Heritage Deposit Brokers and mailed her a package containing letters purporting to be from presidents of these banks. Each was written on what appeared to be official letterhead and assured potential investors that they had a relationship with Heritage Deposit Brokers.
She was skeptical, but he was persistent. He continued to call every few days, always gregarious, always good-natured, and seemingly always on the way back from conducting business in some exotic locale.
Eventually, she told him she'd been recently widowed and lived with her daughter, who has Down syndrome and is undergoing treatment for cancer.
The caller began to encourage her to invest the proceeds from her husband's life insurance, saying the returns would help cover her daughter's medical bills.
Finally, about three months after receiving the first phone call, she was persuaded. With a newly rediscovered sense of optimism, she mailed a check for the first of what would eventually become five CDs with Heritage Deposit Brokers, each for $100,000.
She hasn't seen the money since.
And she probably never will, local authorities say.
"He sounded like a friend," she said. "He'd call a few times a week to check in on me, asking about the weather, telling me about trips he'd been on."
The woman, now 76, remembered thinking the caller led a lavish lifestyle.
"One of the last times he called, he said he was just on his way back from Hong Kong," she said. "He told me another time he'd been golfing with the president of (a bank)."
He'd occasionally send gifts, such as a glass rose for her and a coloring book and crayons for her daughter.
He often promised to visit Hilton Head -- mentioning that he had another customer in Sea Pines -- and that he looked forward to taking her out to dinner.
But he wasn't always so pleasant. If she was a day late in making a promised investment, "he'd get really indignant and nasty," she said, badgering her every few hours over the phone until she mailed it. After receiving the money, he'd call her again to chat, as if nothing had happened.
Meanwhile, she was struggling with fatigue from caring for her daughter and taking medication that she says might have clouded her judgment.
And so it went for more than two years, until he began pressuring her to make a $1 million investment. She refused, explaining that her previous CDs had exhausted her husband's life insurance pay-out and much of her savings.
But again he persisted, lowering his request to $100,000, and calling more frequently, growing more demanding each time. In early September, she said, he was calling so often during the day that she was afraid to answer the phone.
Exasperated, she told her son-in-law what was going on. He urged her to contact of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office.
Now, about three weeks later, the phone has finally stopped ringing.
She never did meet the man on the other end.
Another Hilton Head resident, a 68-year-old man, came to the Sheriff's Office on Sept. 27 -- 13 days after the first victim's report -- suspecting he'd been swindled out of $100,000 by a fraudulent investment scheme. The Sheriff's Office says Heritage Deposit Brokers involved in this case, too.
The Sheriff's Office found no SEC or FDIC certification or endorsement for Heritage Deposit Brokers, nor any documentation of its legitimacy.
Calls to a phone number listed on the Heritage Deposit Brokers website are answered with a recording saying the number had been disconnected.
Both cases have been turned over to the FBI, as they're apparently part of a nationwide scheme that has defrauded people in several states, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sgt. Robin McIntosh. In each case, the money invested was deposited in a bank in the Philippines, McIntosh said.
The Sheriff's Office says it can do little to pursue charges because the group operates internationally.
"Unfortunately, this sort of thing is not uncommon here," McIntosh said, but the large sums involved in these cases were unusual. She advised, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
The lesson has come at a devastating price to its victims. The woman said her investments have left her savings "just about depleted," and it will be difficult to continue to pay for her daughter's medical bills. She's also having difficulties coping with the magnitude of her mistakes.
"I'd gone my whole life without drinking so much as a drop," she said. "But now I can't go to bed without a glass of wine to help me sleep."
Asked whether any good might come from the experience, the woman paused.
"Well," she said finally, "they can't hurt me anymore."
Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.