by Manly Luscombe

Editor’s note: Manly is the preacher with the Priceville congregation in Decatur, Ala. He tells how they were deceived in a money scam by an unscrupulous couple and offers tips on how to avoid falling into such traps.
On Sunday morning 12/30/07 we had a local visitor, Kimberly Heffley, who had recently moved here from Virginia. She came back with her husband Sunday night. Bob and Kimberly stayed for the fellowship following our evening worship and talked with several members. She was especially friendly and outgoing.

On Wednesday night 1/2/08 at 8:30 p.m. (after I got home from Bible study), I got a call from Kimberly. She needed to talk with me. She repeated, “It’s an emergency!” I met her at the church building. As soon as she walked in the door, her first words were, “Bob is dead.”

She told me that he had been killed in an auto accident at 3 p.m. that afternoon. His family was taking the body to Missouri. She told me she was four months pregnant and needed to get to some family for help and support. She was all alone here. She said that she had a relative in Dothan, Ala., and needed to get there for help and support during this time.

The church keeps a petty cash fund for emergency use. There was $80 in the petty cash envelope, which I gave to her and took her back to the house trailer she was renting.

In the Meantime

Some who talked with Kimberly and Bob Sunday night had some feelings that something wasn’t right with some of their story. So with the help of a worker at WAFF-TV and a private investigator some information came to light.

  1. There was not a fatal auto accident in Memphis on Wednesday.
  2. Bob did not die at 3 p.m., he was arrested at 3 p.m.
  3. He was arrested at the mall in Decatur. Someone thought he was a man featured on America’s Most Wanted. It turned out he was not that person, but was wanted on felony warrants in Virginia (Norfolk, Virgina Beach and Hampton Roads).
  4. He also has outstanding felony warrants in Kansas City and Independence, Mo., and in Portland, Ore.
  5. Their primary con is to purchase dogs from breeders with bad checks. Then they sell the dogs. They also write bad checks for TVs, appliances and other items they can sell quickly.
  6. He was arrested to be held for authorities in Virginia for thousands of dollars in bounced checks to dog breeders, fraud and grand theft auto. The car they came to church in had been stolen in Virginia.
  7. I was interviewed about our contact with this couple and it made the 6 p.m. news.

Compassion with Caution

First, it happens to all of us. I have been a minister for more than 40 years. Every minister and every church has been hoodwinked, scammed and bamboozled. We have those calls where some family is in dire straits and needs some help immediately. As one wrote me in an email, “I would rather be the person who bought the Brooklyn Bridge, than the one who sold it.”

Second, I have heard stories far out that they had to be true. I have heard others stories so far-fetched that they became an insult to my intelligence. In Missouri I had a man from Detroit, Mich., tell me his mother died in Florida and he was trying to get to the funeral. Missouri is about 500 miles off the line from Detroit to Florida. I refused to help him.

Third, while we must be cautious, we must do the best we can with the information we have at the time. The same is true with other decisions in our lives. Raising children, we make decisions with the information we have at the time. Later we learn things that, had we known, we would have made a different decision.

Fourth, there was a time when I was becoming hardened to every person seeking help. I became a volunteer fireman. My first priority was to make sure the people were OK. I could offer them a motel and food, knowing that there was a genuine need. In most cases, helping the transient is just sending them down the road to be helped by another church. They are just getting a free ride.

Fifth, years ago the hobo was riding the rails. Now they are on the interstate. But there is a grapevine among them. Once you help someone with a story, you will observe that others come to you with the same story. I helped a man from Chicago with gas to get to a funeral in Texas. Within three months, I had more than 10 requests for people from Chicago with funerals in Texas, or the reverse, from Texas with a funeral in Chicago.

Prevention

I do not know that such scams can be prevented. Here are some comments and suggested guidelines (that I violated that night). Short of doing an FBI background check on every case, there will be times that we are taken to the cleaners.

  1. NO CASH. For many years it has been my general policy to avoid handing someone cash. Buy them gas, take them to Burger King for food, put them in a motel for the night. But do not hand them cash. (I violated my own rule. I should have had her meet me at a gas station to fill her car.)
  2. OPEN ACCOUNTS. Set up accounts for benevolence. We have an arrangement with a local motel. If I call them and say, “Mr. and Mrs. Jones are coming. We will pay the bill,” they will accept them, and we pay the next day. I suggest that churches do the same with a local gas station and restaurant. Buy gift certificates from a Kroger store or gift cards from Wal-Mart for food or clothing.
  3. LISTEN FOR THE HOLES. After the emotions have settled down, I realized that there were some holes in her story. Had I put the pieces together, I would have realized that she was lying to me. We must listen to stories with a critical ear for inconsistent statements, errors, and contradictions.
Randal and his wife Vicki have lived and worked in Brazil since Nov. 1984. They have three children, two daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren. He likes to read novels in his back-porch hammock. http://randal.us

8 thoughts on “Church Deals with Scams

  1. I agree with brother Manly’s prevention rules. They work. If someone is just looking for cash they will turn down or hedge on help provided through other methods. I have been burned myself. However, I recall the words of Jesus when he said “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee.” Matt. 6:3-4. If our heart is right when we help someone and we get scamed, God knows this. It is not that we have been duped that is important. What is important is where was our heart when we put out our right hand to someone. to have been duped may hurt our pride for a while, we’ll get over it and be a little wiser, maybe.

    Jim

  2. Good article. Procedural safeguards are very important. Their importance extends beyond merely avoiding the ripoff. Getting burned by deceitful people can turn us off to benevolence, and cause us not to help those with real needs. Our critical eye should be sharpened to discern between the two.

    One comment I have that is not true in 100% of the cases, but nevertheless is prevalent. Those who truly need help from a congregation will often not go asking for help and try to get by or “fix” things themselves or with the aid of those closest to them, those who are looking for a handout are the ones that show up asking. I think congregations should be proactive in seeking out those in need of benevolence.

    One point I always pondered though: Jesus fed the 4,000+ and 5,000+ even though he knew that many were there just for the food, and would leave when the preaching began. Some remained and received the word. I believe there is a danger in becoming too concerned with those “using” us that we miss the fact that it is still a Christlike way to reach people.

  3. A timely article and relevant comments back. To repeat everyone else — we all have experience as the victim of scams. Usually, cash is not an option. I often offer alternatives — food, gas, etc. — and watch the reaction. We have a great many opportunities to pay electric and natural gas bills — I even try to offer food that I say will “free up some cash to pay these bills.”

    Jesus did say, “Therefore be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves,” in the context of dealing with the world. (Mt 10:16). One of our elders stated recently that the ones most in need of help, may be members or those in the community that work hard at their job, but for one reason or another need an extra $250 to get by this month. I can vouch for that — I have been there.

  4. Allow me to add a fourth: ASK QUESTIONS, such as…
    (1) How long have you been a member of the church?
    (2) Where did you last attend?
    (3) What is your “pastor’s” name?
    (4) Can I call a family member to send money and aid?
    (5) Who can I call to verify what you have said?
    (6) Can I make a copy of your Dirver’s License?
    (7) What is your Social Security Number?

    You might have simular ones.

  5. We thank Manly for his post and for the followups. Obviously we have a constant and perplexing challenge to do what is right both those who plead and to the Lord’s will.
    Sometimes it is easy to see the needy. I brownbagged when I went to SCU in Montgomery from which we lived about six miles via the interstate. There was a period in the late 80s where the final washout of the oil field recession in Texas and Louisiana brought a lot of folks going east. The stories were similar, They had weathered recessions before and thought their job would come back to life. Not this time! First they lost their pickup, then their car, then the house – the wife packed up and left him. He was going to a relative to get a new start. Often I picked up these hitch hikers. And usually I gave them my lunch. One such fellow had not eaten in four days and in that few miles woofed down the lunch faster than Popeye downing spinach. These guys were always very grateful and of course when they got out of the car, I gave them a tract.

    When I was living in Russia, I would encounter people sitting in he doorways of stores when it was 0 degrees or worse. Not hard to reckon these folks, especially 70 year old women, are hungry. They had a basket in which people would put in a few kopecks. Imagine standing in the winter’s arctic north all day to get enough change to buy a loaf or half loaf of bread. I’d tell them to come in the store with me and I’d buy them what they needed. Bread was always at the top. I get them a bit of butter and cheese and a couple other items. Next was the tough part. These folks would usually start crying profusely and thanking you over and over.

    One Sunday my wife and I were walking home from worship and stopped at the store, which at the time, you did every time you passed a store to see what had arrived (buy it today or it may not be there again – ever). I noticed a lady about 40ish standing off to the side, whose hair was unkempt, a very warn and old coat and with no makeup on (a cardinal sin for Russian women, even the poorest to go to the store with no makeup on). I asked her if she needed something. She asked for some kopecks for bread. I told her I’d buy the bread. When I bought it, I gave her a few other things and then Lena and I got in line to buy what we had decided. We left the store and two blocks later, this woman comes running from behind, crying and repeatedly thanking us.
    Jesus told us to love our enemies. These of course are not enemies, they are the desperately poor. And they are relatively easy to see. Our enemies are those who hate us. The scammers have no intention of exercising hate toward us. They are merely thieves. So what was Jesus’ attitude toward such?

    The day following the feeding of the 5000+, some who had been fed, found Jesus. He said to them, “… you seek me not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” (John 6:26). Jesus’ love for man did not allow for Him to enable sinful conduct. Thus trying to follow Him, we have the more difficult task of identifying the truly needy and weed out the scammers. (The Church of Christ is known to be a soft touch, thus we are a pot of honey for the unscrupulous. Even other churches know this. In Nashville, from a “benevolent mission” to a congregation of the Lord’s church are a Lutheran and Baptist churches. They merely tell the stragglers to go down to the Church of Christ.)
    Although we are in the hinterland (South Dakota), we are on a major crossroads in the US, thus get our share of transients. The ministerial alliance has passed this biblical injunction to the police department. The police holds these churches money. When they get an appeal, they fill out a form and send the person to the police. Obviously anyone with warrants on them will not go there.
    We have camped on this idea. When folks come to us for help, the first thing I say, “We want to help the truly needy because Jesus would do that. Because of His attitude, we know that attracts people who are scamming. And we do not give cash, but will help in kind. Then out comes the form. (1) Names, (2) Address (3) Telephone (4) Driver’s license (State and number) (at this point compare the addresses) (5) Auto license number (check this) (6) Auto make, color, year model) (7) Have you registered with the police here? (8) Children, (name, gender, age) (9) employment – where, when (10) Home church ( details if possible) (11) Needs (12) Other churches contacted (13) Prayer request (14) Other.
    Not all of these items will be filled out in every case. I tell them that this is a record we keep in our church records. And if you are near a computer and have time, Google the person. Recently we had a guy going to Fort Collins, was from Minneapolis and had an Iowa driver’s license. He also had a Taxi driver registration from Minneapolis. The Google showed his name in all three places. But was his story true? I do not know, but suspect his immediate need was. We helped him with gas and food. (BTW: with the increasing encroachment of the government on churches, it is only a matter of time, before such might be necessary to prove we have some record of disbursements – “Show us where your money went!”?)

    Keep the faith

    Jim

  6. Every preacher has been approached and possible taken by those who abuse the goodness and benevolent attitude of brethren. Here are a few things that I learned under the title of “You Know It’s A Scam When”

    A man comes to you swearing up and down that he is a member of the Lord’s church and then immediately addresses me as “Father”.

    A woman or man comes to your door and you are knocked over the alcohol smell that comes from them. You talk kindly to them and all they want is money and reject food or a meal at a local restaurant. You advise them to come back when they are sober. They don’t come back.

    A man or woman shows you half of a bus ticket and they need the other half to a far away place; but as you look at the ticket you discover that cities name is not on the ticket. When you ask questions they get angry.

    A man comes to the Sunday morning Bible study and asks for help; but you tell him if he worships with you there will be someone to help him. He then says, “I don’t have time for all this — curse word — and storms out of the building.

    A man calls you on the phone late at night, tells you a long story (to many details) and wants you to come help him now. But you inform him that he is over 60 miles from you
    and there is someone just about a mile from where he is at that might be able to help him.
    You even extend yourself to him to help; but he gets angry.
    A man or woman calls you and wants help with groceries; but wants them delivered to their home. Upon further discussion you find they have a care, and are able get around; but they just don’t have the time to come to the building.

    You tell the person asking for help that as the local preacher I must refer them to a deacon who will check their need, coordinate with the elders then make a decision on their needs. Then all you hear is a “click”.

    Or … a man or woman calls you and tells you they are faithful members of congregation xy or z; you ask “what is the preachers name” and they can’t remember. As I talk with this person my fingers are moving on the computer to check if that congregation has a Web site or I will look it up in the book “Churches of Christ in the United States”.

    Someone calls asking for help and you are going over a checklist of information to meet their needs; they object to giving you information. You ask are they on welfare? Have they been recently to the local food bank? They go into a tirade against “organized religion”.

    Another calls on the phone on Wednesday about 5 pm claiming to be a graduate of a Christian college; and he knows everybody by name in the brotherhood who is well-known. And claims to have played basketball for said college/university. He then puts his pitch to you. You tell him to come at 7 PM for services that night and he will be listened to by the deacon you takes care of benevolence and the elders will be here to ok, a need. He never shows up for services.

    Brethren we need to be kind and loving to all those in need; but we also need to be wise enough not to be taken. All of the above are real instances and I could give you many more.
    As a gospel preacher I have learned to say: “I do not handle money.” and “I do not make the final decisions about benevolence. ”

    Plus, keep a detailed record of everyone you help in a binder so that a deacon, elder, secretary or member see what we have done in the past. We have repeat requests. Also this information can be forwarded to other congregations in the area by Internet.

    Dave Dugan
    8th and Lee church Of Christ
    Lawton, Ok.

  7. Let me balance “You Know It’s A Scam When” with this wonderful benevolence action.

    A man came to services one Sunday morning introduced himself as a faithful member of the Lord’s church. He was from out of town working on a job and would be there when he could over the next few weeks. He was staying in a motel. He was good to his word and appeared at services.

    Three weeks later I get a call on Saturaday morning. The man was to get paid for his work, check out of his motel and pay them for staying three weeks. But, when he went to get his check the company had went bankrupt and no money was given to him.

    I called our benevolent men (no elders at that time). And money was advanced to him. In our converstaion with him, he said my local congregation will repay you in a few days for this help. We thought great; but were not going to hold our breath.

    Low and behold a check arrived in a few days covering the whole amount. We sent a thank you not to the congregation.

    We must caution ourselves about becoming cynics towards all those in need. But, at the same time we should be wise enough to ask questions as Rick points out and weed out the scammers.
    Dave Dugan
    8th and Lee church of Christ
    Lawton, Ok.

  8. I agree with brother Luscombe’s recommendations. Interestingly, while preaching in West Texas, I had a fellow who was trying to get back home to New York from Florida; West Texas was well out of the way. I wonder if it was the same fellow.

    Donnie Bates
    4th & Jackson St. church of Christ
    Hugo, OK

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