STATEN ISLAND — A pair of serial scammers are suspected of fleecing good-hearted New Yorkers out of more than $12,000 in bogus funeral money for a 5-year-old who is alive and fighting a rare form of cancer. The duo were caught after they unwittingly tried to solicit funds from the boy's grandmother — but police said they didn't have enough evidence to arrest them, she said.
Dee Tirado, 52, of Mill Basin, said the callous scam began some time last summer, when a man and a woman came into her office at Dependable Glass and Mirror Corp. in Park Slope to ask for money for a boy they claimed was their 5-year-old son with leukemia.
"I'm not an easy person to fool," Tirado said, adding that she gave them $100 and convinced her boss to donate another $300. "They’re really good. They tell the story, the boy brings tears to your eyes."
The hearbreaking tale was close to home for Tirado, whose then-4-year-old grandson had just been diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. In fact, she said, the couple took a flyer from her desk advertising a fundraiser for her grandson, Gianni Incandela, which included a photo of the boy.
But her suspicions began to mount earlier this month, when a woman emailed Tirado through a GoFundMe page she set up to help pay for Incandela's treatments to say that she had been approached by a couple claiming that Incandela had died and that they needed money for his funeral.
The tips continued to come in from a man emailing her soon after saying a couple fitting a similar description to the scammers had approached him for funeral funds as well. He said he had made out a check to the man and gave Tirado the male scammer's name, which she began running through social media.
While Incandela was diagnosed with craniopharyngioma, a brain tumor, almost a year ago, he is still very much alive, Tirado said. Since Incandela's diagnosis, he's gone through radiation treatments and two brain surgeries. He's lost vision completely in one eye and partially in the other, and developed blood clot-like symptoms that give him headaches.
"His prognosis is that they really don't know," Tirado said. "The only thing that they do know, more often than not it grows back even though they removed it."
The boy's family has nothing to do with the scammers' in-person fundraising efforts and hasn't seen a cent of the money raised by the couple, Tirado added. NY1 first reported the story.
"I was so angry that she was using my grandson to profit," said Tirado, who started to try to hunt down the scammers herself.
To her surprise, the scammers waltzed back into her office on Monday claiming they were raising money for a different cancer organization, she said.
"She walked through my office door looking for yet another donation from me," Tirado told DNAinfo New York. "She felt safe to come here and try to get more money out of us."
She said she locked them in her office, took a photo of them and their donation paperwork and confronted them about her grandson.
"I know that you're using my grandson's story and pictures and lying about his death," Tirado said she told the woman.
The woman became desperate and claimed, "It wasn’t your grandson Gianni, it was another Gianni," Tirado said.
Tirado said she immediately called police who arrived and told her they couldn't arrest the duo for the scam — and let them go.
A spokesman for the NYPD said detectives in the 78th Precinct are investigating the incident but couldn't confirm if police on scene released the couple or detail what officers on the scene told Tirado.
Tirado shared a photo of the couple and their purported names, but DNAinfo is withholding those names and photo because the individuals have not been charged.
The woman could not be reached for comment, but NY1 interviewed her and she claimed she was raising money on behalf of another child with a brain tumor with the same name.
Tirado has desperately been trying to spread the word to would-be donors not to trust the couple.
She is also concerned that their horrific story of her grandson's death could get back to the boy.
"He has enough things to worry about — we don't want him worrying about scary stuff from adults," she said. "We only talk to him about happy things."