How a phone scam was closed down

December 10, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Using the telephone, the solicitors talked fast, claiming t represent several local organizations in St. Mary's County. When someone agreed to buy tickets to "A Christmas Carol," a runner was dispatched immediately to pick up the money.

These are the signs of "a classic telemarketing scam," according to Maryland Secretary of State Winfield M. Kelly Jr., and in close-knit St. Mary's County residents quickly became suspicious.

Complaints came into the sheriff's office the first day of operations, an investigation started the next day, and the operation was closed within a week.

During the holiday season when people are besieged by requests for charitable contributions, all Marylanders can learn from these skeptical St. Mary's residents, Mr. Kelly said yesterday.

"They were alert, they asked the right questions," said Mr. Kelly, whose office is responsible for oversight of the charities that raise money in Maryland. "They reached in and nipped it in the bud."

Usually, he said, shifty solicitors get in and out of town before they can get caught.

The St. Mary's County solicitors, who had been chased out of xTC Charles County, planned to make up to $70,000, very little of which would have gone to charity, according to the county sheriff's department.

"They set up shop like nomads in the desert, set up tents, set up telephones and get out of town before I can get my hands on them," Mr. Kelly said.

In this case, however, an undercover narcotics officer worked as a runner. On Nov. 25, sheriff's deputies arrested two men, who were charged with misdemeanor theft and violations of the state's charitable organizations law.

The two men, Stephen A. Goldberg and Vincent John Lettre, worked for a Florida-based company, Allan C. Hill Productions.

The company, which is registered in Maryland as a professional solicitor, did have permission to use one charity's name, Maryland State Family Daycare Association.

But, in the telephone pitch, solicitors allegedly claimed to represent local lodges, the Fraternal Order of Police or other well-known groups. If people said they could not attend the Dec. 5 production of "A Christmas Carol," the solicitors said the

tickets would go to handicapped children.

Neither the production company nor the charity is considered responsible for the alleged wrongdoing by Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Lettre, both of New York. Allan C. Hill Productions has mounted other shows in St. Mary's and did, in fact, put on "A Christmas Carol" last weekend.

"It's a legitimate company," said Cpl. John D. Horne of the sheriff's department. "Apparently [these two men] ran astray in some way."

Most of Maryland's approximately 1,700 registered charities are legitimate, Mr. Kelly said, but he would recommend turning down any telephone solicitation unless from a friend or neighbor.

Mr. Kelly began cracking down on charities earlier this year. Since May, he has referred nine cases to the attorney general's office.

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