“You’re Just Too Good To Be True”: The Many Odd Faces of the Faux Donor

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Wooden Mask / Sergio

A voice from the field: It may seem like looking a gift horse in the mouth, and indeed it is, but a few recent incidents we have reported on suggest that qualifying donors who are making as-yet-unsecured pledges is just one more important aspect of good fundraising practice. The following stories were contributed by a reader and come from his network of colleagues. Some of the stories reflect small scams with a discernable purpose—others, not so much.

A major gift arrives out of the blue from an unknown source. The donor isn’t in your database or your paper files, and no one on staff has heard of them. Maybe they have a moving story about an experience with your nonprofit or hospital or university, or a promise made to a dying aunt. They may be taking you for a ride that could turn out to be a time, energy, and reputation suck.

Why do faux donors do what they do? Who knows? Their motives may make no sense to us, but you should always proceed with caution when it’s “just too good to be true.”

We want to ask readers to share with us their own odd tales of faux donors (and even donors that you thought were too good to be true but turned out to be real) but, in the meantime, these tales will help you ponder whether you’re getting manna from heaven or being scammed.

The following is a compilation of online discussions of faux donors trying to scam colleges, schools, and nonprofits. These tales were provided by Barbara Esteve at Cedar Crest College, Roylene Gallas at the Little City Foundation, Don Martin at St. Paul’s School, Lori Redfearn at the California State University Chancellor’s Office, Stephen M. Rodriguez at Boston University, and Kristi Worden at Augustana College. I’ve anonymized the tellers of the tales and the subjects.

Tale #1:

In the days before the Internet was commonplace, we got scammed by a couple at one of the hospitals I worked for. The husband portrayed the pair as major philanthropists from St. Louis, and he also claimed to be a great friend of the late Yul Brynner. He had started up a foundation that carried Yul Brynner’s name with several million in assets.

The wife had had surgery and was laid up in the hospital for at least a month. While the wife was recuperating, the husband asked if he could stay at the hospital to be closer to his loving wife (she was about 20 years older than he and on Medicare). The hospital agreed, and he set up shop right in her hospital room—complete with a pullout bed, table for a desk, phone, even meals, all free of charge. I seemed to be the only person that was suspicious of them, so I began sleuthing. True, I found some photos of the two of them at a black tie gala in St. Louis, but anyone can have their picture taken, no?

As I began to put more pieces of the puzzle together, the trail began to smell of fraud, and it turned out that I was correct in my assumptions: He was wanted for being a scam artist. So the hospital was out the costs that the insurance did not cover for his wife, plus all that we had fronted in terms of the room, amenities, meals, phone, etc. He and wife were both kicked out of the hospital, but I don’t know if any criminal action was taken.

By the way, all of the data he had created about the Yul Brynner Foundation was a fraud too. So much for the “millions of dollars” he was going to contribute to the hospital.

Tale #2:

We received a phone call from an individual not associated with us who told the sad story of visiting our campus with his very ill wife, who had since died. He claims the visit was one of his wife’s last happy days and now he wants to give a significant gift in her memory. He wants to talk with the president about this and leaves a number for a return call. Searching provides no obituary for the wife, the phone number does not exist, and there is no information to be found for his name.

Tale #3:

Our front desk received a call from someone who wanted to give a major gift to our college. She transferred this caller to a major gift officer. She couldn’t find a trace of him through Google, so she tried calling the numbers given later in the day and none were in service. It’s been passed on to our security department, but wanted to give everyone a heads up. Not sure the purpose of the scam since they didn’t get any information out of us really—maybe just to get our hopes up.

Here’s what my major gifts officer wrote up:

The caller’s granddaughters decided to give funds to [the college]. They researched online. They have no ties to [the college].

He apparently went to undergrad at [another college]—they had no records of him when I called. He claimed that he had given scholarships to [that college].

He has an MBA from [major university] and a law degree from [another major university].

He has a yacht company with 4 shipyards in 3 countries.

He has homes in Mississippi and Florida.

Tale #4:

I got one last week saying I was, “DAMNED FROM ETERNAL SALVATION FOR NOT ACCEPTING A GIFT THAT WAS A MIRACLE FROM GOD.” The donor promised his patent would completely fund the university, wipe out the national debt, and make America the happiest place on Earth.

I obviously could not accept because that would leave me with nothing left to do. BTW, beware potential donors who only correspond using caps lock.

Tale #5:

A decade or so ago, when I worked at a certain cathedral in [another state], I was sent an envelope full of grocery coupons and pornography from a man whose accompanying handwritten letter (yes, all caps) claimed him to be the grandson of Michelangelo (long lifespans in that family). He offered to paint the cathedral ceiling for $1.5 billion. He had an extensive portfolio of his work at the Met, all of which had unfortunately been stolen. His return address was a N.Y. prison.

Tale #6:

Most recently, we had one alumnus promise us his art collection and then went to post an article online about how he strung us along. He actually posted our email exchanges online through a local newspaper where he was a freelancer.

Tale #7:

We were contacted by a man whose initials were J.C.…“The Second.” (That was printed on his checks.) Theoretically, because I worked at a cathedral, he would have been my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. I think you get the picture.

The first letters came with small gifts memorializing certain people in history not known for being very nice, but other than that, they were not altogether bizarre (other than the checks…with no address, and envelopes, with no address, and I don’t think they ever had a postmark, come to think of it). Then, he started sending calligraphy letters—ornate, multicolored things where the first letter was always in a text box and, if you looked closely, you realized it was actually a monk in a position that was shaped like that letter. They were actually pretty. His brief insights were little sermons on mankind, sports, and one time, pizza. A month or three would go by, and we’d get another one. Then, one day, his letter didn’t have a check, but instead had fingernail clippings taped to the letter. At that time, I began wondering if the ink in the letters was actually ink.

He sent a self-portrait once, a drawing of him holding a globe in one hand, releasing birds in the other, famous books on the shelves around him, busts of Shakespeare and I think Galileo behind him, and the wood in the walls etched with the words “SCIENCE” and “REASON.” It very much reminded me of something M.C. Escher would have done if he’d decided to immortalize himself in a mimeographed paper fresco.

Tale #8:

At another organization I worked for, a person visited our offices and asked for a tour. He indicated to the receptionist that he was opening a business in town and wanted to contribute philanthropically to our organization, for which he had the utmost respect. One of my gift officers gave him a tour and talked with him about making a major gift. He then initiated contact her, but soon it became apparent that he was stalking her.

Our IT department was able to track the email servers he was using and traced back a few years until they came up with a photo of him. In tracking the servers, they found out he was using a number of aliases. We immediately called the police, who in turn discovered warrants out for his arrest in another state. It was a bit unnerving, to say the least. We cooperated with the police department, and my staff member called him to set up an appointment for him to come and see her the next day. Plainclothes officers were waiting for him in our lobby, and when he walked in, he was immediately arrested.

Obviously, some of these are far more plausible than others, but how does one avoid being “scammed” in this way?

Start with due diligence. Look the self-described donor up online. See if they’ve supported other organizations, or are on any charity or corporate boards. Ask your IT staff to verify the donor’s email address. If you have access to them, look the donor up in wealth screening and research tools like WealthEngine, Target Analytics, DonorSearch, or LexisNexis for Development Professionals (or ask a freelance researcher to do that for you). You might also want to run a formal background check. If you’re not satisfied, ask to meet the donor in person so you can give them a tour or say thank you (and also see if they look like any photos you’ve found).

Still not sure? Things could be getting sticky. Your gift officer or executive director may want to book the gift and celebrate while your research or operations staff are still urging caution. At this point, your best bet may be to make sure that the check or credit card clears and let some time pass to make sure the donor doesn’t ask for a full or partial refund.

Again, we don’t get it, but clearly this kind of thing is pretty common, so heads up, fundraisers!