Scam targets local church

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 22, 2011

A local church was targeted by a scam this week, and law enforcement officials want to make other churches aware of it.

“We want the pastoral community to be diligent and on guard against this,” District Attorney Walt Merrell said Thursday. “We are concerned we might have a deluge of this scam.”

It’s was Merrell’s own pastor, Bethany Baptist Church’s Josh Wilson, who was targeted this week.

“We received a phone call to the church office from a man saying he was a police officer in West Virginia. He claimed to be a police officer helping a family who claimed to know me,” Wilson said.

The “officer” said the family in need of help was from Andalusia, traveling to a funeral, and had had car trouble.

“He told me the family had visited our church with another couple that I knew,” Wilson said.

Wilson was told the family had car problems and was $90 short of what was needed to pay the mechanic, get the car released and continue on the journey. When Wilson asked how to help, the “officer” pretended to talk to the mechanic and suggested a moneygram from Walmart.

The story was made more urgent by a claim that the family in distress was African American and was in an all-white, racist town.

Wilson sent the moneygram and waited for confirmation that it had been received and the family was on their way. The story got more complicated.

“They said, the family had gotten half-way down the mountain and run out of gas, and they needed more money,” Wilson said. At least 10 phone calls were placed to the church, including some bizarre voice mails.

This time he said, “No, I know this is a scam.”

The “officer” replied, “OK, thanks.”

Later, Wilson called the district attorney.

“We checked and confirmed that both of the phone numbers were West Virginia phone numbers,” Merrell said. Further checking revealed a law enforcement officer with the name that had been used with Wilson, but it was determined he could not have made the call.

Chief Investigator Brett Holmes said he then checked with the West Virginia State Police.

“When I started the story, she finished it,” Holmes said, adding that the scammers had been successful in West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia.

Merrell said, “They are predatory and they do not stop. There have been tens of dozens of victims.”

Wilson said he believes it was his church’s Web site and Facebook page that made it possible for the scammers to find him and use a familiar name.

Merrell said anyone who encounters this is asked to notify the district attorney’s office. And it’s pretty easy to avoid being scammed while still helping those in need, he said.

“If a caller identifies himself as a police officer, find out their jurisdiction and agency,” he said. “Get a callback number, then search for the number for that agency. Within 10 minutes, you can find out if there is a legitimate need for help.”