Last fall, the BBB got a call from a woman who had met someone who offered to get her help paying her utility bills and other obligations. The woman was asked to hand over money in exchange for the help.
The fishy thing was that the alleged “helper” asked the woman to meet her behind the University City Library. BBB Investigator Bill Smith began looking into this charity, and he asked the U. City police to look into it, too.
The BBB ended up writing a press release about the bogus charity, which went by the name G.O. Incorporated, alerting the public to the scam. Smith couldn’t find any evidence of a real charity named G.O. Incorporated, and it was soon apparent that it wasn’t going to provide any help to the victims.
Police and prosecutors kept working on the case, and earlier this month, they filed theft charges against a man who had promoted the scheme. Today’s release has details of the latest development.
Here's the release:
St. Louis, Mo., July 19, 2012 – A 41-year-old University City man has been charged with four counts of theft in connection with a bogus charity operation that police say victimized numerous St. Louis area residents last fall. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) first alerted the public to the scam on Dec. 5.
Willis Edward Fleming Jr., whose address is listed in the 1400 block of Faris Avenue, was charged with three counts of felony theft and a fourth count of misdemeanor theft for his role in the phony charity, G.O. Incorporated. The BBB alert on G.O. Incorporated warned that several consumers claimed they paid hundreds of dollars each to a representative of the organization in return for promises that G.O. would pay off their utility, rent or mortgage bills.
At the time of the BBB alert, BBB president and CEO Michelle Corey called the scheme disturbing. “In this tough economy, many people are desperate to catch up on their bills; they’ll grasp at any chance for help. For someone to victimize these people when they are already down is reprehensible.”
Corey praised area police and prosecutors for pursuing the theft charges on behalf of consumers. “Law enforcement officials can sometimes view cases like these as civil matters,” Corey said. “We applaud St. Louis County for stepping up and investigating these fraud cases.”
It is unclear exactly how many people were taken in by the alleged scam, but during its investigation, the BBB found at least 20 people who claimed they paid money to the charity in return for assistance with their bills.
In January, a St. Louis woman told the BBB she had paid $450 to G.O. Incorporated on Nov. 29 after the charity promised it would pay off her gas bill and mortgage payments by the end of the year. When the payments were not made, the woman contacted the BBB for help.
One of the theft complaints outlined by St. Louis County prosecutors involved a St. Louis area couple who apparently were used by Fleming to recruit friends and family members to make upfront payments to the charity.
Prosecutors also alleged that Fleming used a St. Louis area woman to recruit friends and family members to the bogus charity.
Several consumers interviewed by the BBB said they had met a representative of G.O. Incorporated at a table inside the University City Library. Two of the four
criminal complaints alleged that the crimes took place at the library.
After the BBB made the library aware of the scheme last year, officials there posted a warning to its patrons.
Copies of G.O. Incorporated agreements showed an address in Flint, Mich., but businesses at that address said they had never heard of the charity. The BBB could find no working office and no registration in either Missouri or Michigan.
A man who identified himself by phone as a supervisor for G.O. Incorporated told the BBB last fall that the nonprofit’s work was funded by several investors in St.
Louis and Michigan who wanted to help people who got behind on their bills.
In addition to the charity-related charges, prosecutors also have charged Fleming with three additional felony theft counts as part of a scheme to sell Dell laptop computers in June 2011. In that scheme, St. Louis County police said Fleming collected more than $3,400 for more than 60 laptops, but then never delivered the computers to buyers.
The BBB advises consumers to check BBB Charity Reviews before donating to any charity. The reviews are available at www.bbb.org.
The BBB is a nonprofit, business-supported organization that sets and upholds high standards for fair and honest business behavior. The BBB provides objective advice, free BBB Business Reviews on more than 4 million companies, 11,000 charity reviews, dispute resolution service, alerts and educational information on topics affecting marketplace trust. Please visit www.bbb.org for more information.