Citing a troubling history of tax scam artists preying on the trust of particularly black community churches in the Southeastern United States, an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official is urging pastors and their congregations to maintain a vigilant watch for these scam artists during tax season.
In a recent release from Mark Green, IRS media relations officer for Georgia, he noted that flyers and advertisements for free money from the IRS, suggesting that taxpayers can file with little or no documentation, have been appearing in community churches around the country.
"Promoters are targeting church congregations, exploiting their good intentions and credibility. These schemes also often spread by word of mouth among unsuspecting and well-intentioned people telling their friends and relatives," noted Green in a statement.
He explained that the scammers tend to target the pastors of these community churches first to get them interested, and once they have their confidence they would have access and the trust of the congregants.
Just last December, an alleged scammer tried baiting a small church in Early County, Ga., with promises of "free stimulus" money. Had it not been for the pastor's suspicion, in this case, sensitive data belonging to several hundred people would have been seriously compromised.
According to Annette Bankston, a member of The Kingdom of God Ministry Church in the County, she was recruited by an unsuspecting family friend to help sign-up individuals for the "free stimulus" money. "We signed up a lot of people," said Bankston in an interview with The Christian Post on Thursday. "The first night we signed up 103 people. The second night we signed up over 300."
She said the forms they were provided asked for sensitive information such as, telephone, driver's license, and social security numbers. They even requested checking account information. She noted that although she is a naturally suspicious individual, the presentation of the claim was so compelling she ignored that instinct.
In her excitement about the prospect of "free stimulus" money, she decided to introduce the idea to her pastor. "We were hoping to build another church, so I said 'let me call my pastor' because this seemed like a good fundraiser," recalled Bankston.
Luckily, on hearing about the deal, her pastor – who was not available to talk to CP on Thursday – chose to call the IRS just to confirm it was true.
"She (pastor) called me back and said, 'baby, it doesn't look good," said Bankston. That's when they joined forces with the Early County Sheriff's Office to shut down the operation. The family friend was arrested and the forms were turned over to the police.
Randall Meeks, while not the investigator working on the specific case referenced by Bankston, is from the Investigations Division of the Early County Sheriff's Office and confirmed with CP the incident did occur. "This is the first time in recent memory that someone (alleged scammer) had come in person. Most of our scams are usually by mail or phone," said Meeks.
Georgia Henderson, associate pastor of Perpetual Praise and Worship Ministries in Douglas, Ga., whose sister Jeanette Ruffin lost more than $100 in a similar scam claiming slavery reparations in 2002, said pastors need to ensure that they protect their congregations from scams.
"It is sad that people prey upon churches this way. It is our job to do research and background checks on the information that we pass on to our congregations," said Henderson.
Ruffin said she was promised up to $50,000 in the slavery reparations scam in 2002, and said it was the lure of the money that caused her to doubt her own suspicions back then.
"At first, I thought it was too good to be true but a lot of people were talking about it. I was hearing people were getting $40,000 and $50,000. I had my doubts but I still went along anyway," she said.
When she found out it was a scam, it hit her hard. "I felt awful," she said. "It was one of the worst moments of my life. I mean you work so hard and you try to better yourself only to realize you were scammed?"
If she had to do things differently she said, "rather than listening to people, I would contact people that have better information like the IRS," she said.
According to Green, IRS media relations officer for Georgia, the best source of information for anyone with a question about an IRS tax credit or program, as well as advice on how to choose a tax preparer, can be found online at www.IRS.gov, key word search 1040 Central. For questions about rebates, credit and benefits from other federal agencies contact the relevant agency directly for accurate information.