Antonia Becerra, an 81-year-old Glendale resident, was close to retiring after more than 40 years as a waitress at the landmark French restaurant Taix in Los Angeles, but that all changed this year after she fell victim to a lottery scam that wiped out her life savings.
Scam artists even conned Becerra into selling her car for the promise of getting a $2 million prize and a new Mercedes Benz, police say.
"I sold the car and I sent them the money — I am still waiting for the package," Becerra said.
The package, police say, will never come, and there is little hope that her assets will be recovered or that the perpetrators will be caught.
Becerra must now get rides from co-workers to her job and take the bus home.
"I have to keep on working," she said. "I gotta do it. There is no way, but I know that the good Lord will help me out."
She sticks to eating pantry staples, including milk, eggs, soups and salads. Becerra lives in a modest South Glendale apartment, which she has been painstakingly clearing out in the hopes of renting one of her two bedrooms.
Stacks of clothing — which she planned to sell or donate — from her late husband sat on her living room couch Thursday. Numerous bills were scattered on a coffee table, where there was a framed photograph of "Friends" star Lisa Kudrow holding a white paper sign that read "Hi Antonia."
Even after decimating her life savings, Becerra said, scammers continue to call and harass her for money.
She has since stopped answering her phone.
Becerra was first contacted by the con artists in April. They claimed she had won a prize, which would be given to her only after she wired some cash to secure the transaction.
They sent her checks, but when she tried to deposit them, she realized they were bogus.
They even tried to persuade Becerra to sell her jewelry and give them her Social Security number, but by then, she had caught on. Becerra eventually contacted police, but she was already broke.
The scam is becoming more common because of the economic downturn, Glendale Police Sgt. Harley Wing said. Financially strapped victims, he said, fall prey to the scams because they offer the promise of quick money.
Becerra's story struck a chord with members of the Glendale Police Officers' Assn., which has started collecting funds to help her get back on her feet.
On Thursday, Officer Ben Bateman, the group's treasurer, told Becerra that they had already received a $500 donation from a Glendale businessman, and that they would be covering the equivalent of a month's rent.
"To help you to get a little bit of a leg up," he told Becerra, who was overcome with emotion.
The association is hoping to raise enough money through the Glendale Police Foundation to help pay for a new car and to cover other bills.
"If we are lucky, maybe we will get more than just one month's rent; maybe we will get a few months' rent," Officer Ryan Gunn said.
But for now, Becerra will continue serving tables and taking orders three days a week at Taix. She was there Friday, doing what she's done for years, essentially starting over at the age of 81.
Fellow server Thomas Roche — "heartbroken for her" — noted that customers often pack into the restaurant's bar area to be served by Becerra.
At one of her tables Friday was one of her regulars, Michael Wilk, who said the waitress' wry sense of humor keeps him coming back.
"You can't rattle her," Wilk said.
Becerra said she has no choice but to go forward.
Her job is challenging, she said, but it helps pay the bills, and her customers are loyal.
"I love my customers," Becerra said. "They always come back and ask for my tables. That makes me feel great."