St. Louis, Mo., Dec. 5, 2011 – The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is warning area residents to be alert for what appears to be a utility, rent and mortgage assistance scam operating in the St. Louis region.
Several people, including at least two area school bus drivers, said they paid hundreds of dollars to a woman who told them she represents a Michigan-based nonprofit that would help them pay off their debts. The nonprofit is not registered with the Michigan or Missouri secretaries of state, and officials who work in the area of rent and utility assistance say they have never heard of the charity.
One of the drivers said she paid a woman $250 on a promise that the nonprofit – G.O. Incorporated of Flint, Mich. – would pay up to $650 in rent to her landlord. The second driver said she paid the woman $200 in return for promises that the nonprofit would pay Ameren Missouri and Laclede Gas Co. an additional $600 in utility assistance.
The bus drivers said they went to the University City Public Library last week to meet with the woman, give her the advance fee payments and obtain written promises that the charity would help them with their bills. Both women said the woman told them the nonprofit would make the assistance payments in 30 days.
Others told the BBB they made payments to the woman as recently as Wednesday.
Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said that the stories are 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 come in and victimize these people when they are already down is reprehensible.”
The scheme appears similar to those reported last summer to authorities in Tennessee and Georgia.
In the Tennessee case, a Memphis-area woman paid $100 to a woman who was posing as a social worker, promising to pay off the remaining $500 due on the woman’s utility bill.
In the Georgia case, a 27-year-old Savannah woman was charged with orchestrating a utility bills scam that duped nearly 30 victims. Police said the woman in that case hunted for people who owed utility bills in the parking lots of supermarkets and discount stores. That woman also offered to take care of their bills for a fee and presented a fraudulent federal identification badge.
One of the St. Louis area drivers admitted she was uneasy about giving money to a stranger. “The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why I was meeting somebody behind the library,” she said.
“She was a real churchy lady,” said the second driver. “She had a Bible; she said ‘God bless you, sweetie.’” The driver said she should have become suspicious when the woman asked that she make out the $250 money order to an individual, rather than the charity.
Both drivers said they were given signed agreements headed, “G.O. Incorporated, 1110 South Linden, Flint, MI 48532.”
A resident of the South Linden address said he had never heard of the nonprofit. A supervisor in a Flint-area government office that works closely with utility assistance programs said she had never heard of the agency. A check of Michigan records indicated the agency is not registered in that state. The United Way in St. Louis, which keeps track of agencies that provide utility and rent assistance, also has no record of the organization.
A man who identified himself as a supervisor for G.O. Inc. told the BBB by phone the nonprofit’s work was funded by several investors in St. Louis and Michigan who wanted to help people behind on their bills. He declined to identify them. He said Ameren could confirm the charity’s work. A spokesman for Ameren said the utility had never heard of G.O. Inc. and is not aware of any utility assistance from the organization.
BBB tips for consumers seeking help in making utility, rent or mortgage payments:
- Contact the utility company, your landlord, or your mortgage holder, inform them of your situation, and ask them to work with you on your payments.
- Seek assistance from local charities. A list of local charities that meet BBB standards is available in the BBB Winter Giving Guide or at stlouis.bbb.org/charity.
- Check for a BBB Business Review by calling 314-645-3300 or going to www.bbb.org.
- If you feel you have been scammed, contact your local police. You may also file a complaint with your state’s attorney general or with your BBB.
Contacts: Michelle Corey, President & CEO, 314-584-6800, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Chris Thetford, Vice President-Communications, 314-584-6743 or 314-681-4719 (cell), email@example.com; or Bill Smith, Investigator, 314-584-6727, firstname.lastname@example.org.