Published: Aug 15, 2011 2:47 PM EDT
Updated: Aug 15, 2011 8:50 PM EDT

LEE COUNTY, Fla.- The Lee County Sheriff’s Office fraud line recently received a dozen calls from area churches reporting phone calls they received from a man claiming to need money so he could travel north to be with his dying child. Although many of the churches were suspicious of the caller’s story and chose not to assist the man, several churches and individuals unknowingly fell into the man’s web of lies and provided him financial assistance. With the help of the community and the local media, Lee County Sheriff’s Office Economic Crimes Investigators were able to identify the
subject, who has since been arrested and remains in jail on charges unrelated to the church scam.

In light of this religious rip-off, the Sheriff’s Office reminds all residents that con games are a way of life for many people. These unworthy individuals go from city to city, house to house, and religious organization to religious organization conning victims out of money. Their sob stories pull at the heartstrings of caring and giving folks, ultimately stealing from the victim and making it difficult to get help for those who are in real need of assistance.

It is only natural to want to help others; particularly in these tough economic times. Here are a few tips to keep in mind to avoid becoming the victim of a con man or woman:

If a person is requesting money to pay a utility bill, write the check directly to the utility company and mail the check yourself.

• Never give money spontaneously. If possible, investigate the request thoroughly and make certain there is a need.

• If someone is requesting money for food, you should purchase groceries or a meal from a restaurant yourself instead of handing over cash.

• If donating to a needy family, it is your responsibility to ensure that the money is used wisely. Develop a plan for donations and then use the plan! It is up to you to conduct due diligence in each request.

• Financial needs are at an all time high in Southwest Florida, and recovery from the loss of jobs and foreclosures continues to move at a slow pace. Fortunately, there are services available through local outreach and benevolent programs that can help people get back on their feet again. As individuals it is challenging to distinguish between the truly needy and the truly greedy, but as a community we can and will make a difference.

For information on available services, please contact the United Way at 2-1-1

If you have questions about this or if you have received a call and would like to report it, please contact the Fraud Hotline at 239-477-1242.