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Scamming the church: Telephone fraud ring targets the UMC in S.C., nationwide

By Jessica Connor

The Rev. Carleathea Benson knew something was shady when she got the phone call last month.

“The (Anderson) district had sent out a notice the week before about a scam, and on Aug. 28 they sent another notice, and as soon as I finished reading it my phone rang,”  said Benson, who pastors Fairfield United Methodist Church, Piedmont. “The gentleman asked me if I was Rev. Lea Benson, and I said yes, and he never identified himself, he just said, ˜Would you hold, Bishop Bledsoe would like to speak to you, and then Bishop Bledsoe allegedly got on the line.”

Benson said the caller was very jovial and knew all sorts of personal information about her “ her name, which church she pastors, even her private office number where she works during the week for Clemson University.

But Benson knows Bledsoe personally, and she asked him a question about her daughter, and he couldn t answer it.

Then he asked her for money.

I knew it was a scam. I said, ˜Shame on you for impersonating Bishop Bledsoe, and he got quiet,  Benson said.

Benson, who hung up before sending money, was one of the lucky ones.

Others didn t fare quite so well.

According to the S.C. Conference of the UMC and the Council of Bishops, churches, pastors and laity across the country have been receiving fraudulent calls from a scam artist using the names of S.C. Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston, South Georgia Resident Bishop James. R. King Jr. or Northwest Texas-New Mexico Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe in their schemes.

Usually what happens is the scam artist calls up pretending to be the bishop and explains his niece is moving to the area and her car broke down,  said Matt Brodie, S.C. Conference communications director.

Often using the name Rosa Allen for the niece and explaining she works for the federal government, the scammer tells the victim the niece is at a Firestone or similar car repair shop and needs money sent by Western Union to pay for an auto part.

The person calling sounds just like the bishop; (the victims) were convinced they were talking to the bishop,  Brodie said.

In South Carolina, several churches, pastors and laity received calls, including Benson. At least one person reportedly gave money.

They know their stuff, they knew all these details, like the bishop having surgery,  said one S.C. pastor who thought the call was real and sent money. That pastor wishes to remain nameless and spoke to the Advocate on condition of anonymity.

The pastor said being scammed made me feel violated and used. 

You think you re being helpful, and they made it sound so realistic,  the pastor said. I just hope that they are caught and this thing comes to an end. 

This scam seems more deliberate than most,  wrote Jo Ann McClain, Council of Bishops administrative assistant, in an email to UMCs across the Connection. She urged conferences to share the scam information with their churches, and the S.C. Conference immediately complied.

Suspicious pastors who received calls informed authorities, who immediately began spreading the word both within affected conferences and among the Council of Bishops.

Police are investigating, and the S.C. Conference is doing its best to spread the word to local churches via email, website and district offices. A police-led scam training event is being developed now by the conference communications office to help educate pastors and laity on scam awareness and protection.

For now, the conference is urging people to use caution “ and don t just send money if directly asked.

Any request for money will come as a general request from the episcopal office through the proper channels “ from the Cabinet to the districts to the churches, statewide; it s not going to be the bishop calling someone on their cell phone,  Brodie said.

In her situation, Benson immediately notified her district via email, then called Clemson University Police Department to report the crime. She said if she had not read the warning emails from the district, she might not have paid such close attention to the fact that the call was a scam.

They are highly crafty,  Benson said about the scam artists. Someone s going to a lot of effort to get all the information to make it sound so appealing to us about what we are called to do and that s help others, and they re using an African-American bishop. Very, very crafty. 

Anyone who receives a scam call is urged to notify the conference right away at brivers@umcsc.org or 803-786-9486, ext. 307.

While the phone calls are usually coming from numbers 404-821-0437 and 323-742-1110, they can originate from any number. If a phone number is visible on caller ID, write it down and provide it to the conference as soon as possible.

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