LARGO — A con artist dubbed "Plasma Pat" has taunted police with claims he's swindled thousands of people out of cash in a scheme that promises a big screen TV but delivers only embarrassment.
The man has been identified as 60-year-old Joseph Wesley Torma, Largo police said Wednesday. But he remains on the loose, despite making a series of calls to police and being identified by the latest victim and tipsters, authorities say.
During a handful of conversations with a detective, Torma bragged he had run the scam on 30,000 people and said most people would never report the crime because they would be too embarrassed, said Largo police Lt. Mike Loux.
"He's bragged about how many victims he thinks he's had over his lifetime," Loux said. "I've listened to the calls, and he shows no remorse. He blames the victims for their greed."
In the scam, Torma poses as a Wal-Mart employee named "Pat" and tells his victims that he can get them a good deal on a big-screen television, police say. After victims hand over the cash, he leaves and never returns with the TV.
Torma was identified by tipsters who recognized his picture last month after media reports of the latest incident at a Largo Wal-Mart, Loux said. Shortly after the St. Petersburg Times ran a story on the incident, Torma started calling Largo police, Loux said.
Police said they can't substantiate Torma's claims about the number of victims, but do think he's run the same scam in at least a dozen jurisdictions statewide, from as far north as Lake County and as far south as Fort Lauderdale.
"We know he's been doing it for years," Loux said.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said it has investigated two similar crimes, both at the Wal-Mart at 3801 Tampa Road in Oldsmar in December 2007 and January 2009.
In both cases, a man wearing a Wal-Mart ID badge offered a discounted price on a large television. The man left after he took the victim's money and promised to return with the television. He received $490 in cash in one incident, and $400 in the other.
The modus operandi is nearly identical to what happened to a 67-year-old man at the Largo Wal-Mart on Feb. 9, when the man gave Torma $300 in cash for a big-screen TV, police said. While the man waited outside, Torma entered the store through one door and left from another door without obtaining the TV.
The Largo victim was able to pick Torma out of a photo lineup, according to Loux.
In that case, and at least one other in Pinellas County, Torma approached his victims in a bar, authorities said.
Torma is suspected in a similar case in St. Petersburg and another in Clearwater, Loux said.
Torma's last known address is in Texas, but he has ties to the Tampa Bay area, Loux said.
Since 1991, Torma has been arrested for fraud, grand theft auto and petty theft in Hillsborough County, according to records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.