Scammer Targeting Nonprofits Has Multiple Aliases
Rachael Wilkins, director of development for Safe Haven Family Shelter—which helps families in Nashville, Tenn., get back on their feet with workforce development, financial literacy, obtaining affordable housing and more—had been going back and forth via email with a potential major donor who wanted to gift $30,000 in memory of his mother. When the gift arrived Jan. 21, the nonprofit told its financial consultant about the big check.
“And [our financial consultant] said, ‘I believe it’s a scam ... I’m working with another organization, and they had the same thing happen to them.’ ... She could tell me verbatim what was in the email without me having to relay it to her.”
Save Haven is one of many nonprofits across the country that has been targeted in a recent scam. From Richmond, Va., to Seattle to Wilmington, N.C., to Atlanta, nonprofits have described their experiences with scammers in recent months. Some received emails from Ken McFarlane, who offered $30,000 donations, sent checks for close to $40,000 and claimed the differences were accounting errors. He requested the nonprofits wire those differences back to him immediately—before the nonprofits learned the checks had bounced. Others have the same general story but involve a Robert Whitlock. Both McFarlane and Whitlock are real people—architects at different British firms. However, their identities have been stolen.
“I think the thing that was most disappointing from our end is knowing that there’s someone out there that would take from nonprofits—take from some of the most vulnerable populations in our country,” Wilkins said.
The use of a real person and real conversation is what made this scam believable, Wilkins said. The scammer or scammers even went as far as cloning the architects’ websites with very similar URLs, but different phone numbers and emails. And the email exchanges seemed authentic, with “Whitlock” claiming in his initial email to Safe Haven, “My mom, my sister and I were homeless for a few months and we had to sleep in shelters.” Wilkins was alarmed with how far the scammer was able to pull her along.
“A lot of times it’s pretty evident when someone is sending you a scam email," she said. "In this case, due to the personal nature of their response that I received in the beginning, [it] made me believe that this could be a real donation. … What we learned from it is just to really be on alert because this … really must be the way that the new trend is going to go. It’s no longer ‘I’m an Arabian prince and we’re going to send you $2 million tomorrow.’”
Just days before Wilkins encountered “Whitlock,” Larsen Jay, founder and CEO of Random Acts of Flowers, a nonprofit in Knoxville, Tenn., that recycles fresh flowers for hospital patients and senior-care facility residents, received an email from “Whitlock” with a donation offer.
“Obviously, in retrospect, it seems totally ridiculous, but at the time, it seemed—we deal with a lot of elderly patients," Jay said. "There are so many connection points with our mission to so many people around the world. One of our first donations from out of town, we delivered flowers to his mom at a senior care facility in Tennessee, and he lives in Denver, and he said, ‘Geez, this meant so much to me. I’m going to send you a donation.’ It’s not unheard of for us to get donations from people around the country, much less around the world.”
Jay described the potential $30,000 as a dream scenario. He even told his national board about the pending money—and the board chair was eager to visit the donor during an upcoming London vacation. Jay informed “Whitlock” the check had been deposited when he thought it had been, so “Whitlock” replied Jan. 14:
“There’s a family that I had pledged to help with finances for their daughter’s dialysis machine. She’s suffering from acute diabetes. Unfortunately, my accountant had written a check for almost $40,000, which was our capped budget for giving out this season. $30,000 was meant for you guys while the rest was meant to go to the family. My accountant didn’t get this right and issued the total funds to you guys.”
This email, which also stated the girl needed surgery that same week, was essentially the same email Wilkins would receive Jan. 22. It raised Jay’s suspicions and prompted him to reinvestigate “Whitlock.”
“I found the real Rob Whitlock, and called him and said, “Hi, I’m calling from the states, and here’s why I’m calling,’” Jay said. “And he said, 'Yeah, you’re about the 10th charity that I’ve talked to,’ and then it all unraveled from there.”
To deal with his disappointment over being duped and to help other nonprofits avoid a potentially devastating loss, he wrote a 12-page white paper detailing his nonprofit’s interaction with “Whitlock.” He also filed a complaint with the FBI and alerted the Alliance for Better Nonprofits, a Knoxville, Tenn., membership group for which he serves on the board.
Another membership group, Center for Nonprofit Management, Nashville, Tenn., shared where nonprofits should turn if they think they’ve been scammed.
“When reporting nonprofit scams, the answer is different in every state, depending on where the state legislature deems nonprofit business to be handled,” Meg Morgan, communications manager for Center for Nonprofit Management, Nashville, Tenn., said. “Often, nonprofit scams should be reported to the state’s Office of the Secretary of State or the Office of the Attorney General. In Tennessee, the attorney general receives these complaints and acts on them.”
Jay also kept playing along with “Whitlock” in their email exchange. He replied that he didn’t think he could wire the money back, and they should talk on the phone, which he had tried to do earlier in the interaction with no luck. This time, “Whitlock” called the next day.
“He had a very good, proper British accent and the whole bit,” Jay said. “I put him on speakerphone because my whole team was here listening. And I strung him along and I just played dumb and said, “Oh geez, I don’t know if we can do that. I’m not really authorized at the bank, and I need to run it by the board,’ and he just kept digging, like ‘Oh my gosh, it has to happen today’ and ‘This poor girl.’ He was very persistent but very professional. He was a great act. And I just finally said ‘Well, I’m going to have to talk to the board chair about this because I don’t think I have the authorization to wire money, but I’ll get back to you.”
Neither has made contact since then.
Reflecting on his experience with the scam, Jay noticed he wasn’t as patient as he should have been in researching this unknown donor. He also may have been on the wrong side of that fine line of wanting access to the donor versus being respectful of the donor's time when he didn’t push harder for a phone call earlier in the conversation.
“It’s a conundrum because you’re at the mercy of the court,” he said. “When you’re a professional beggar, you sometimes have to accept that donors are not always as accessible as you’d want them to be, and that’s OK—maybe.”
Generally, he warned that donors are simple, so complications could be a red flag.
“The good people that drive the philanthropic community are not jerks,” he said. “They’re nice people that want to help and they believe in what you do.”