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.