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Pastor, police warn about scam targeting churches

January 20, 2008|By MARLO BARNHART

A Presbyterian pastor and the Hagerstown Police Department are warning area clergy about a scam that apparently is targeting churches by asking them to help people in need.

The Rev. Kyle Powderly of Hagerstown Presbyterian Church sent an e-mail to REACH and other clergy members after he and his church were targeted by a man making a pitch for money.

"I've given money to people and rides to people many times," Powderly said. But he said the circumstances of the recent plea for money prompted him to question the validity of the claims.

He started doing some checking. A little detective work turned up a variation on a scam that apparently has been going on for a couple of years around the country, Powderly said in an e-mail.

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A male caller would represent himself as a pastor of a small church in New Hampshire that the caller said was not affiliated with any denomination and called, simply, The Church, with a membership of seven people.

Powderly said the man called looking for help for two members of his church "passing through" our area. He claimed the couple were evicted from the place they were living in New Hampshire and on their way to Atlanta, where they would live at a campground.

The caller told Powderly that the man has Huntington's disease and that he and his wife needed help with gas money, food and medications.

Powderly said he learned the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire was warning churches of a similar-sounding tale by a man posing as an Episcopal priest from New Hampshire.

If such a caller "calls you, or calls any other churches in the area, please let folks know that, as far as I've been able to determine, this is not a legitimate couple in legitimate need," Powderly said in his e-mail warning.

Powderly said he posed several questions to the caller, who then embellished the story of the couple's plight, trying to convince Powderly to send money.

Efforts to get a call-back number from the man were rebuffed, and when Powderly spoke a second time with the caller, he told him that his church wouldn't be able to help and offered to put the couple in contact with CASA.

But the caller didn't take the phone number, Powderly said.

"When I asked him about being an Episcopal priest, I again got a couple of moments (of) silence on the phone before he denied being or having been an Episcopal priest," Powderly said in his e-mail. "He got off the phone claiming he had to prepare for a counseling appointment."

That's when Powderly contacted police.

"We got the e-mail, too," said Sgt. Paul J. Kifer, who passed along the information to the Maryland State Police central intelligence group in Columbia, Md.

Kifer said common sense should prevent people from sending money to an unknown organization from another state with no way to verify the validity of the claim.

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