The email came from Phil Dooley; lead Pastor of the Hillsong Church in Cape Town, South Africa. He was inviting me to be the motivational keynote speaker at the church’s January 2014 international leadership conference to be attended by over 1,000 people.
At first I was skeptical so I checked it out. The church was indeed real; founded in 1983 and now has branches in Europe, Africa and the United States that welcomes about 30,000 worshippers weekly.
A Google search on Phil Dooley provided numerous articles praising his work as a former youth pastor who has had an enormous impact on youth and the city of Cape Town. He has over 32,000 followers on Twitter and an active Facebook page with nearly half a million likes. Skepticism quickly turned to flattery and flattery turned to excitement.
So I emailed him back for more details and expressed my eagerness to be part of this great event. Curious as to how I was selected, he said after checking my credentials, reading articles about my work and watching my video blog “we received the Lords direction to invite you to speak”. While I have received valid invitations through the power of the Internet before, to my knowledge, the Lord has never been so directly involved.
A few more emails outlining fee and requirements; I had both a formal invitation letter and signed contract in my in box. Excited to share my message on the international stage, I drafted some preliminary ideas, started checking potential flights and was put in touch with Ed Smart, the events coordinator, who would help me with my every need. We discussed audio-visual requirements, potential travel dates, hotel accommodations and he requested my bio and photo for event posters.
They were professional, responsive and appeared eager to work with me as their emails were filled with phrases such as “inspiring and motivating our congregation.” Everyone who contacted me ended emails with words such as: “you are blessed,’ “have a blessed night,” “remain blessed” and “God bless you.” I did indeed feel blessed.
Given I’m a seasoned traveler and have spoken in many countries; I should have sensed the flags.
Flag: Why wasn’t this international event publicized on the church website?
Flag: Why were they just hiring a speaker for such an important event only two months away?
Then another email arrived; this one from Linda Jacoline who said she was with the Department of Home Affairs. She explained that South Africa requires work permits for anyone engaging in work for less than 90 days. Because it can take up to six weeks to get approved I needed to complete the BI 1738 work permit form and send $875.00 which included homeland fees and taxes. She said I should send the payment via money transfer to the deputy issuing officer in charge of foreign applications and he would pay the fees directly to the South African government.
Flag: South Africa doesn’t require work permits.
Flag: The money was to be wired to a single individual.
Why that didn’t sound suspicious is questionable. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to visas, work papers and other forms when traveling abroad. Or perhaps it’s because I was caught up in it all. We were going to wire money in the morning.
If I hadn’t coincidentally spoken to my friend Denise that evening, we might have actually sent the money. When I told her about this opportunity she said “sounds completely squirrelly to me.” Knowing her good-natured ,sometimes cynical, humor, I laughed her off until an email arrived a short time later telling me to check out a blog about church scams.
It sounded a little like my South Africa opportunity, but I still didn’t make the connection. This scam was in England. It was a different church and while the emails were similar, they were not the same.
So I started Googling and it didn’t take long to find a motivational speaker who said he was taken for more than $1,000s. I clicked his link and there it was. Word for word, I read the exact same email from the exact same people with the exact same email addresses who had contacted me.
Not only were they impersonating real people, but they were using their emails. What can we learn from this?
1. Don’t shell out a single penny until you’ve received a deposit or the full amount up front.
2. Don’t ever give out personal or banking information in an email.
3. If someone says a permit or other documentation is required in exchange for doing business, call the embassy and find out for yourself.
I wanted my scammer to know I was onto them so I emailed back saying: ‘nice try, you almost had me, but fortunately I’m onto you.’ I never heard from them again. I guess the Lord really did intervene on my behalf.