A group named Care Charities called June Gillespie, 87, in June 2015.
The caller spoke with Gillespie about her past support of The United Way and described Care Charities as a similar organization.
Gillespie said she willingly gave the charity a one-time donation with her American Express card.
After that, things got funny.
Heather Walano, Gillespie’s daughter, says her mother is a victim of charity fraud. The charity tells a different story.
Walano said after her mom approved the donation, the rep called back and said something wasn’t working with her card.
“She gave them her Barclays MasterCard for what she thought was the same one-time donation,” Walano said, noting those two calls were the only time Gillespie said she spoke to the charity. “Over the next few months, they billed her 36 times on the American Express and 23 times on the MasterCard.”
The amounts of the charges varied, adding up to $14,098 on one card and $10,869 on the other, totaling $24,967.
Gillespie’s story is enough to send shivers up the spine of anyone with an older loved one. No matter how much we read about scams and Nigerian princes and phantom lottery winnings and think it will never happen to us, sometimes, it does.
Walano said neither credit card company contacted her mother to question the charges.
The merchant was listed on the credit card statements as Care Charities, and Gillespie said she received receipts for only a few of the charges. The receipts said the donations were to groups including “PTSD Care Charities,” “Heart Care Charity” and “Victims Care Charity,” and that all of the charities were part of a group called MiniCare.
“She found this all very confusing and when she tried to contact Care Charities they did not respond,” Walano said. “My mother’s vision is not good and she was embarrassed and confused. When she called the credit card companies she got the automated thing and got frustrated.”
Finally, in January, Gillespie asked for her daughter’s help.
The two filed disputes with both lenders, but the charity told the credit card companies Gillespie gave all the donations willingly, documents show. The credit cards seemed to accept that and the charges were reinstated.
Gillespie cancelled the credit card numbers, filed a police report and Walano advised her mom not to give her credit card information over the telephone. They also continued to fight with the credit card companies.
Walano started to dig into Care Charities, convinced there was more to this organization.
“Clearly [my mother] cannot be the only one. My mother is a very smart, well-educated, independent woman and she says she has never in her life felt stupid,” Walano said.
Walano asked Bamboozled to investigate and to help her mom get her money back.
WHO IS BEHIND THE CHARITIES?
We reviewed dozens of documents, including credit card bills, dispute letters and other communications between Walano, the credit card companies and the charities. We also reviewed a couple of receipts from the charities.
Then we started the search.
Care Charities and MiniCare are both located in Nevada.
MiniCare says on its website that it’s “a non-profit 501C3 corporation created to establish low fee primary care clinics throughout the nation that will cater to the uninsurred [sic].”
The site was created by Barry Michaels, a convicted felon now running for Congress in Nevada. Michaels did 15 months in federal prison in the 1990s for tax and securities fraud related to a venture called Family Airlines,reports said. At the time, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said Michaels issued $5 million in stock but used the money to pay for his extravagant lifestyle, including a $50,000 down payment on a house and his-and-hers Mercedes Benz’s.
Michaels told us he started MiniCare but it “stopped operating” five years ago.
He said he sold the name and tax ID number to a married couple — Virginia and Robert Martins — who had, as part of the deal, paid off some of his unpaid bills.
Michaels said he tried to contact the Martins several times over the past few months because he was interested in regaining the charity, but he said they haven’t returned his calls.
Public records confirm the Martins took over the non-profit’s name and tax number.
Interestingly, though, Michaels’ name still appears on the non-profit’s registration in Nevada as a “director.” “V. Martins” is the other contact name on the document.
Michaels said he had no idea his name was on the document, and again said he no longer has anything to do with MiniCare.
More than 50 corporations are registered to “V. Martins” or “V. Martin” in Nevada, and many share the same address as MiniCare and Care Charities.
They include Children’s Hope Network, Life Care, Life Hope, Life Help, Second Chance and Veterans Care Charity.
There were also two that sound like religious organizations: Life Care Church and World United Church.
Other sub-charities that are listed on the main charity’s website and also share the same address and phone were not registered with Nevada.
In all, only four of the names registered to Virginia Martins are registered with Nevada as charities: Care Charity, Care Charities, MiniCare andVeterans Care Charity.
A state spokeswoman said those four were registered as “active” but they claimed “no” to soliciting, which means they would not be asking for donations.
“A charity is required to answer yes if soliciting charitable contributions,” the spokeswoman said. “The Charitable Contribution Form and the Annual List filing both include a declaration that the officer or authorized signer is completing and submitting the filings under penalty of perjury.”
We already know that those four indeed solicited and took contributions from the credit cards of Gillespie, so it seems those charities, and the others that aren’t registered but collected from Gillespie’s cards, may be in violation.
Next, we checked out the charity’s tax filings.
MiniCare is a registered 501(c)3 charity, and it files IRS Form 990-N because it says it has gross income of less than $50,000.
However, the credit card statements show the charity collected nearly $25,000 from Gillespie alone.
Form 990-N names Virginia Martin as the principal officer.
None of the mini-charities are listed on the form as “Doing Business As,” or DBA entities.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) said DBAs have to be part of the filing.
“The organization must include its EIN (Employer Identification Number) and any other names the organization uses, so it seems that DBAs do have to be listed but don’t have to file their own forms,” a spokeswoman said.
We also checked the rules in Gillespie’s home state of New York, where charities are required to register. If they solicit donations, they must tell the state that, too. But none of the charities are registered with New York.
We called the number listed on the websites of all the DBA charities. Robert Martins answered the phone with a simple “hello” and not with a charity name.
He confirmed Virginia Martins was his wife, but said she was out.
We asked about the structure of the charities and how much money each raised annually.
“It’s all under MiniCare,” Robert Martins said.
He said he didn’t know how much money the charities raise, but he promised a bookkeeper named Maria would call us back.
We never heard from Maria, but Virginia Martins called.
“Maybe she’s gone crazy and the daughter has stepped in and doesn’t want to lose, I won’t say this but probably she doesn’t want to lose her inheritance,” Virginia Martins said.
She then said based on Martins’ conversations with the credit card companies, Gillespie should have all her donations back by now.
“She doesn’t deserve it back because the woman gave it to a charity. There was no coercion,” Martins said. “I know they asked, ‘Are you sure you can do this?’ and that there was no coercion and she willing, freely, authorized and freely gave every penny of it.”
“She’s just totally wrong in doing this and it’s totally hurtful. We don’t keep money around. It goes out when it comes in,” she said.
We asked where the contributions go.
“It goes out to many different places,” Martins said, but she said she couldn’t be specific because she wasn’t in front of a computer.
She also said she didn’t have an estimate of how much the charities collect each year, so we asked for a ballpark.
“We’re on the low end. I’d say… I don’t know. Ballpark could be under 10k,” she said.
When we explained Gillespie’s cards had been charged for nearly $25,000, Martins didn’t respond.
Instead, she questioned why Gillespie waited so long to ask for her money back, and said Gillespie “bragged” about being involved with The United Way.
“She got her receipts now she’s probably going to use those on her income tax as charitable donations — and scam the system,” Martins said.
We asked about the paperwork irregularities.
She said Michaels, the convicted felon running for Congress, is an officer and is on the board of the charity.
When asked what their relationship was, she said, “No comment.”
Martins said she didn’t know DBAs were supposed to be listed on the IRS form, and she was surprised that the DBAs were not listed on the Nevada forms.
When we explained the Nevada form specifically said the charities would not be soliciting contributions, she said that couldn’t be correct.
“I don’t know why it would say that because I remember going and filing forms specifically to collect contributions,” she said. “I will check into that.”
Martins promised to call back with how much the charities collect and where the money goes.
“I will strongly say this: they are lying. They have to be lying,” Martins said. “Excuse the language. I’m just really pissed.”
Martins never called back with the additional information.
BACK TO THE CREDIT CARDS
Despite Martin’s statements that Gillespie had gotten all her donations back, that hasn’t happened yet.
Over the weeks of our investigation, American Express refunded $8,165 of the $14,098 billed to Gillespie’s account by Care Charities. Other charges are still being examined.
Walano said Barclays MasterCard has been more challenging. She said some charges were refunded but then reversed again, and she’s been told is the case is pending.
“The dates and amounts on the statements do not match the transactions they give me when I call and they don’t seem to be able to explain why,” she said. “Because of these discrepancies it’s kind of impossible for me to track what has been refunded.”
Both credit card companies say they’re still investigating.
“In either case [my mother’s] her intent was a one-time donation to a legitimate charity,” Walano said. “I really do not understand how they were able to process all these transactions.”
Staff researcher Vinessa Erminio contributed to this report.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller atBamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. FindBamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.