A Reprehensible Scam

I was really looking forward to my Friday off: after a pretty hectic start to the new year, I had a stress-free day with nothing planned!  Unfortunately someone marred the middle of it with a really despicable act.

Cheryl, Michael & I decided to go to a movie today, and then grab a late lunch. The movie previews had just finished – and oddly enough, it had just announced something about taking your emergency calls out of the theater – when my cell phone buzzed.  I had an emergency call from our church receptionist.  Obeying the mandate I had just seen on the screen, I went into the lobby to call Mrs. Shirley back.  She was very somber.  She said that she had received an emergency call from a state trooper in West Virginia.  He said he had gotten our church’s number from the scene of an accident, and needed to contact the family.  As soon as I hung up with Mrs. Shirley, I was to wait for a call from him.  I weakly told her “ok”, hung up, and began to wait.  Doesn’t take long for a thousand thoughts to run through your head.  One might think that a call from West Virginia would be odd – we live in Louisiana.  But we have a son who attends seminary in North Carolina.  He occasionally travels with his friends – in fact, I think he has friends in West Virginia.  I know that troopers often inform family when a loved one has been killed in an accident.  To my knowledge, we had no other family on the road; most likely it would be our son Paul.  I felt numb.  I waited.  I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach.  I thought: “So this is what it feels like to get that call …”.  Suddenly a lot of things really didn’t matter much: all the church committee meetings; the sermon I had labored over for Sunday.  I wasn’t going to be there Sunday.  Just like that, a member of my family had been taken away.  There would now be an empty place; things would be different for the rest of our lives.  I hadn’t checked my kids’ Facebook statuses yet today; did I have time to look – would I find that Paul had taken a trip with friends?  My phone rang, and I answered. 

The man on the line identified himself as a trooper in West Virginia.  He said that he needed to contact me about an emergency.  But then the call began to take a strange turn.  He said that he had a family there with him, who claimed to be from Westlake, and said they knew me, but that I was from Lake Charles.  He said this didn’t make sense to him.  I told him that Lake Charles and Westlake were nearby.  He said that this family claimed that they had been to my church, First Baptist Moss Bluff.  And then he added something odd: he said, “Sir, you sound like you are Caucasian, but this family is black.”  I thought, “What in the world?”  Instinctively, I thought, this man’s accent sounded funny; like it was being put on.  Part of me wondered then if someone was testing me; was this a bad joke?  Surely not.  I told the “officer” that we accepted all races of people in our church, and we had several African-Americans in our services in recent weeks.  He then said that he would put these people on the line to talk to me.  The connection was not that great, but the man who addressed me on the phone said that he and his wife had been in our services a few days before; that his wife had talked to me for several minutes in the lobby – did I remember that?  I told him that I really did not remember such a conversation.  I become a little more leery. The man launched into a story about how they had come up to West Virginia because of the death of a loved one, and had run into some trouble, and this officer didn’t believe that they had attended our church because they were black.  I stopped him.  This is not what this call was supposed to be about.  The Highway Patrol had supposedly gotten my number out of a car in an accident and needed to contact the next of kin.  This call was now going in an entirely different direction.  They needed “help” from a pastor who might believe them.  I stopped him and told him that I didn’t believe his story.  I said, “You mean to tell me that of all the people you know in this country, you are calling ME to help you?  You don’t even know me – and I do not believe your story!”  He got really angry, and yelled, “What kind of pastor are you?”  I told him that I was finished with this phone call, and hung up.

I called Mrs. Shirley back and related to her what had happened.  She told me again that the “trooper” had said that our church number was the only one they could retrieve out of a car in a bad accident, and that they needed to inform the next of kin.  There was a WIDE discrepancy in the story they had given her to get my number, and the one they told me when they called.  This was a fraud, a cheap attempt to use a helpful church secretary to get some money out of what they hoped was a naïve minister – yet another variation on an ages-old scam.  I tunred my phone off and went back to the movie.

I whispered a brief explanation to Cheryl, then just sat there as the movie played.  I do not have anywhere near the ability to convey all that I felt while that episode unfolded.  But it left me shaken and somber, and trying to relax, again.  And not just a little bit angry, either!  Such wickedness; to abuse people’s emotions to feed into their selfish scheme.  And it wasn’t just me, either.  Mrs. Shirley was incredibly upset; I could sense it on the phone.  She had just lost her husband a year ago; I think she felt this every bit as much as I did.  She later told me the Lord would judge those men.  We do have to entrust them to Him.  And also know that everything we are touched by, comes through Him first.  He allowed this to come my way today.  I guess I’m not too surprised.  He has done a lot of “sifting and sorting” with me recently, and I have rededicated myself in a number of areas in my life as we have entered this New Year.  And the Lord is working in our church in some special ways, too.  We seem to be ready to “hit a wave” as our Education Minister calls it – we set an ambitious attendance goal for 2012, which we inexplicably HIT the first Sunday of the year!  So there may be some spiritual warfare underway here, too.  Well, whatever the case, so much for my “stress-free” day!  Hopefully I learned, and responded the way I should have; I don’t know.  I hoped to work through some of my feelings as I typed this blog.  And I wanted to get the word about such scams out — it might help prevent someone else from falling prey to them.  But I am grateful that my family members are all ok today.  As despicable as it was, I am glad that a cheap scam was all that today’s “emergency” entailed.  After all, some people DO get those calls, for real.  It just wasn’t me, today.  And for that, I am most thankful.

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, provides brief devotions from own personal daily Bible reading, as well as some of my sermons, book reviews, and family life experiences.
This entry was posted in Home & Family Life, Ministry and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Reprehensible Scam

  1. Becky Crutcher says:

    I saw your initial post about this on Facebook. What an unsettling event! Just so you know and anyone else that might see this, this is not the way it works. My dad was a deputy coroner in Desoto Parish for years and this is not the way something like that is ever handled. If a death happened in another city/state, the local law enforcement agency for the next of kin would be contacted to then go notify the family, no phone call, but rather a knock on the door. That doesn’t help you much now but just an F.Y.I.

    On another note, I loved reading about how God is at work for His glory at FBCMB!!!

    • Shawn Thomas says:

      That’s good to know, Becky, and might be of help to others as well. Thanks — and keep praying for us at FBC Moss Bluff! I enjoy keeping up with y’all on Facebook!

  2. William Curtis says:

    We’re now getting the same kind of calls to Churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Thanks for the helpful post.

    • Shawn Thomas says:

      I’m grateful that it helped, William. Sorry that it is being perpetrated again this year though. I am going to re-post this in hopes that the word may get out a bit more. I sure hate for anyone to fall prey to this.

  3. I am an Episcopal priest in Atlanta and the same thing happened to me today. I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital when my secretary called with the exact same message. I called the number she gave me for the “trooper” and left a message. Then I called the WV Highway Patrol, which knew nothing, and the sheriff’s department, which didn’t answer the phone. A while later a woman called me back. She had no idea about this, but said she had also received another call from an Episcopal Church. I posted it on Facebook, and found out the other call was to a friend at another church here. Then someone else found your blog and posted it. Then two other Episcopal priests, one in Atlanta and one in Vermont posted the same thing had happened to them. I didn’t lose any money in this scam, but I spent the better part of New Year’s Eve afternoon trying to figure out who in my congregation might have been traveling in West Virginia. I know I”ve been scammed before, and figure it comes with the territory. But playing on fears and emotions like this is about as low as it gets. I’m glad you blogged about it, because it helped us realize what was going on.
    Tricia Templeton

  4. Shawn Thomas says:

    Reblogged this on shawnethomas and commented:

    I’m getting comments that unfortunately this same scam is going on again this year, hence I’m re-posting in hopes it may help someone.

  5. Anita says:

    This scam is still going on. We received a call last night at church saying there had been a car accident with one fatality and a second possible fatality. The caller said he was a “Sargeant Brinkley” from West Virginia. We called West Virginia police station in Parkersburg where we traced the number that called us and there is no such Sargeant there. We were so upset to think a family member or church member had been in a car accident. I told them right away I was not comfortable with their questioning, but that they could all back and speak with the Pastor. This was definitely a scam to get money.

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