The first complaints about the Christian Prayer Center were short, cryptic – but not enough for the Washington state attorney general’s office to investigate. These people bilked me.
But then, a lengthy letter landed, from a family whose members were both heartbroken and furious.
“They had a child with a rare terminal illness,” said assistant attorney general Daniel Davies. “They were looking for hope anywhere they could get it. One of the places they turned to was the Christian Prayer Center.
“When they are going through incredibly difficult situations, often times people turn to prayer,” Davies continued. “They see a website touting that thousands of people will pray for you. They have a pastor, testimonials on the website of people whose prayers were answered.
“The pastor was a sham,” he said. “The testimonials were fictitious as well.”
The child is still dying.
And the family paid and paid. The first $35 they gave to the Christian Prayer Center to help their ailing daughter was one kind of fraud. No one was praying. There was no one there to help.
The second and third times the family were charged constituted yet another kind of fraud, because the center continued to charge the family’s credit card without consent. When the girl’s father spotted the unapproved charges, he investigated and then contacted Davies’s office.
As a result, the owner of christianprayercenter.com and its Spanish-language counterpart, oracioncristiana.org , have been ordered to pay up to $7m in restitution to an estimated 125,000 desperate consumers who reached out for prayers in their times of need.
Seattle businessman Benjamin Rogovy and the Christian Prayer Center “created fake religious leaders and posted false testimonials in order to attract consumers”, the attorney general’s office said in a statement announcing the settlement last week.
Rogovy’s attorney, Thomas Adams, did not respond to requests for comment. As part of the consent decree, the 30-something Rogovy does not admit to having violated the law.
But the Christian Prayer Center operation is just one of three scams addressed in the settlement – albeit the largest one. The other two were a fake ordination service and a fraudulent consumer complaint agency. In all, Rogovy has agreed to repay up to $7.75m to a total of 165,000 victims nationwide and to pay $600,000 in attorneys’ fees and court costs.
If he does not stop engaging in what the state officials described as “unfair and deceptive business practices” and repay his victims, he will be subject to an additional $1m in civil penalties.
The prayer websites have been shut down, but court documents include screen shots of the fabricated testimonials that drew in tens of thousands of desperate people who wanted to be prayed for by “thousands of Christians” promised by Rogovy, an entreating army that did not exist.
The internet has enabled us to build a massive congregation to lift your prayer requests to a whole new level
Christian Prayer Center website
“Our mission is to provide the strongest network of group prayer to Christians around the world,” Rogovy promised. “The Bible tells us that through agreement in prayer, the Lord shall grant us all that we desire.
“The internet has enabled us to build a massive congregation,” Christian Prayer Center boasted, “to lift your prayer requests to a whole new level”.
Giving what the attorney general’s office has described as fabricated testimonials were men and women whose dreams, the website said, were fulfilled by a God who “answers our prayers and grants miracles in our lives.”
People like “Santos M., Bonfay, FL” who gushed that “The Lord made my HIV test NEGATIVE!! Praise our God for giving me a second chance at life.” And “Mary C., Lexington, KY” who spent nearly all of her money on groceries, bought a $7 lottery ticket and won $100. “I left with more money than I came with,” she said, “and had groceries”.
One of the difficulties in the investigation was that it involved both faith and desperation. The attorney general’s office wants as many of Rogovy’s victims to come forward as possible and file claims for reimbursement online .
But “when you’re dealing with people who pay for prayer,” Davies said, “you don’t want to be in a position where someone might think you rescinded their prayer through a lawsuit. That’s why we’re doing a claims process…If people did feel they had consolation, we don’t want to take that away from them.”
The young girl’s parents who made the investigation possible have requested anonymity and do not want their 2014 letter released. “It explains that they felt terribly misled,” said Davies, who handled the case, “and that this is a horrible practice”.
They weren’t the only parents praying for a sick daughter. Davies called it a “consistent thing we see”. And then there was the cancer patient who was desperate for healing.
“It was a time of need,” he said. “They paid the money. And then they found out it was a scam. They were upset. And they feel duped.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2016