Federal regulators are warning us about a scam that has begun popping up around the nation, soliciting African-American churchgoers for participation in an alleged government program that promises to handle payment of bills. But victims have found that not only does the program fail to pay those bills, but it also could be stealing one’s identity and damaging credit.
In a blog post last week, Federal Trade Commission attorney Sana Chriss, who represents the agency’s Southeast region, warned consumers that many victims have fallen for the program, which they believed because they heard about it in church.
“We’ve heard that this scam is happening in some African-American church communities: People approach churchgoers with this so-called deal,” Chriss noted. “And, because it comes up in church, the scam might seem like it could be legit. But take it from me — and the FTC: There is no federal program that pays your monthly bills in exchange for payment of any kind.”
It works like this: At church, or at a church-related event, word spreads there is a program, sponsored by the federal government, that will take away your worries about paying your bills on time. For an up-front fee, the program will collect information about your billers, account numbers and amounts owed (car payments, utility payments, loans, etc.), along with your bank account information, so they can draft payments out of your account.
It sounds pretty good, and many victims have even noticed the payments being scheduled. The only problem is the scammers cancel the payments, and the money never reaches the auto loan company, credit card company or utility. And, because they never got your payment, you start racking up late fees and finance charges, so next month, your problems escalate.
“You think your bill is paid,” Chriss notes, “but you’re stuck with not only the original bill, but also a late fee because your payment wasn’t actually processed. And now the scammers have your bank or credit information. Doesn’t sound like much of a deal at all.”
Of course, there are some programs to help elderly folks, or people with disabilities, who might need some help handling monthly expenses because of financial hardships. You can find out about some of these programs at https://www.usa.gov/help-with-bills. But, Chriss notes, you won’t have to pay up-front. And, if you’re having a difficult time handling your finances, there are lots of resources out there, such as credit counseling services, which can help you develop a realistic and workable budget.
Over the years, various scams have been aimed at well-meaning churchgoers. For example, back in October, a Virginia pastor and his wife were indicted on charges they solicited money from their congregation for what they said was a program to provide micro-loans for people in developing countries. Instead, they allegedly took the money and invested it in risky loans, and used it to finance a $1.8 million home.
And churchgoers of all races have been solicited for a variety of questionable schemes, including “gifting” clubs, pyramids, government grant programs, questionable tax deductions and Ponzi schemes. Often, these scams are presented to appeal to your sense of charity, but are really just a way to line someone’s pockets.
If you’re approached by somebody with a claim that seems too good to be true, please check it out. And if you’ve been victimized by this scam or a similar one, contact the Consumer Protection Division of the attorney general’s office at 1-800-281-4418 to get your complaint on the record.