One name comes to mind when Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine warns consumers about charity fraud: Bobby Thompson.
Thompson was the man behind a national charity known as the United States Navy Veterans Association. While the operation was very successful at raising money it was also a fake.
When a newspaper reporter in Florida started asking questions about the charity, state authorities also began looking into its fundraising and charitable activities.
“This guy did everything right, Bobby Thompson did. He registered in different states where he was required to register. He hired legitimate direct solicitors who didn’t know it was a scam. They had the story down (raising money for Navy vets) and so people gave,” DeWine said.
Authorities discovered the organization had filed bogus information on state registration forms and funneled all of the donated money directly into Thompson’s pocket. Investigators spent two years searching for Thompson with the knowledge that he was a highly intelligent con man who was on the run with plenty of cash.
Thompson created the biggest charity fraud in Ohio history and was responsible for stealing a total of $100 million in fraudulently obtained donations nationwide.
“The U.S. Marshal Service captured him on the west coast and when we sent our BCI (Bureau of Investigation) agents out to execute some search warrants and bring him back, in one suitcase he had close to $1 million in cash. In another suitcase he had about 20 different disguises,” DeWine said.
How did one man pull it off?
DeWine said the fundraising companies Thompson hired aggressively sought donations in multiple states on behalf of his bogus charity and the money rolled in.
To further build national credibility, Thompson created a website with photos of himself and nationally known politicians, including President George W. Bush and former House Speaker John Boehner. Boehner later said he did not know Thompson and likely the photo was taken at a Washington fundraising event.
Thompson coupled that credibility with a pitch for donations that few people can resist, cashing in on people’s desire to help veterans. “I think people want to help. And so these scam artists know that. They play on that natural sympathy and desire that each one of us has to help our veterans. They come in with a story and these guys are really, really good,” DeWine said.
‘Make sure it is a legitimate charity’
The tale of such brazen theft, under the guise of charity work, is especially troubling to well known charities that pride themselves on their credibility and decades of good works in the community.
Michelle Lovely, vice president for development at The Dayton Foundation, said the majority of Dayton area charities do a good job of making sure donations go toward their intended purpose. She added, though, that consumers should be careful about donating money to unfamiliar organizations. “I would encourage anyone before they make an emotional decision to give to something….you hear the word “veterans” and you think I’m going to support that right away. Make sure it is a legitimate charity,” Lovely said.
Lovely said it takes just a few minutes to protect your donations.
“Ask them to send you information. Go to the websites that are out there like Guidestar.Org or call the Dayton Foundation. We have great resources to be able to do research for you,” Lovely said.
According to Lovely, any attempt to pressure anyone into giving an immediate donation, especially in cash, should make people suspicious.
“When someone is asking you to wire money or give cash those are immediate red flags. You never want to give that way. If they are pushing you and are anxious for you to make a decision right then and there, I would be nervous,” Lovely said.
The Dayton Foundation also offers a free service called the “Charitable Checking Account.” The Foundation checks out the prospective charity and directs the donor’s money to them, while the donor’s checking account information remains private.
“We are sending out our check instead, so it protects you and your personal information,” she said.
Another category of nonprofits is equally troubling. They are sound-a-like organizations that follow the law but give a relatively small percentage of their donation dollars to charitable causes.
Maj. Stanley Senak of the Salvation Army in Dayton also encouraged people to check out a prospective charity, especially if it is new to the donor and the name sounds only vaguely familiar. “They sound similar. They could be different. Do I think it’s a problem? I really do.” Senak said.
In Ohio alone there are 42,000 charities registered with the Attorney General’s office. Many of them have similar names or causes. For example, the list of groups with the word “cancer” in their title includes 317 organizations, ranging from “A Christmas To Cure Cancer” to “Zero-The End To Prostate Cancer.”
DeWine encouraged potential donors to ask the charity to disclose what percentage of their funding goes to overhead and what goes to actual charitable work. He also asked that donors report to his office any suspicious behavior by people who are raising money.
“We try to track down bad guys who are doing these things,” DeWine said. Still, there are limits to what his office can do, given the volume of the charities registered in the state and the location from where those solicitations are launched. He warned consumers not to rely on the caller ID on their phones when a solicitation call comes in.
“They spoof your area code. 937 might come up and you think this is a Miami Valley call, when in fact they are in Jamaica or someplace else. So a lot of people are out there to fool you about even where that call is coming from,” DeWine said.
DeWine believes people in Ohio lost more than $1 million to Bobby Thompson, whose long-running scam ended on May 1, 2012. A female co-conspirator had been arrested earlier in Cleveland, although authorities did not reveal if she provided any information that led them to Thompson. At the time of the arrest in Portland, Oregon, US Marshal Pete Elliott said Thompson was found living under another name, in poor health and walking with the aid of a cane.
Investigators later revealed that the former fugitive’s real name was John Donald Cody. Cody was convicted on a long list of criminal charges and sentenced to 28 years in prison. He is currently housed at the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield and just last year a judge rejected an appeal of his conviction.
To this day Cody has refused to talk with authorities about what happened to the $100 million he stole.