Sixty-seven area residents are among the victims of an alleged half-million dollar nationwide scam that played on their religion and Y2K fears.
West Virginia Auditor and Commissioner of Securities Glen Gainer III Friday made public an ongoing national investigation into Greater Ministries International, of Tampa, Fla.
He now is looking for other victims of the alleged scam.
"They targeted church people," Gainer said in a telephone interview. "They would come right into the church before the congregation É and use the scriptures to justify themselves. They really worked the churches. To me, that's a double offense."
Using the motto, "Give and it shall be given to you," people calling themselves "elders" would approach churches and make their pitch, Gainer said.
People in this area invested as little as $250, Gainer said. One Harrison County resident invested nearly $100,000, while a person in Monongalia County invested more than $20,000.
At the end of last year, when the nation was consumed with the Y2K computer bug issue, the elders would tell congregations that when the year 2000 arrived, paper money would be useless.
They convinced some people to liquidate their assets, take out mortgages on their homes and cash in their life savings to invest in gold and silver mines and other precious metals, Gainer said. The "investors" were told they would own part of the mines, therefore having a secure future.
"They used the fear factor," said Gainer, who is a member of the National Securities Administrators Association, the group that spearheaded the investigation.
Greater Ministries called the money from those investors "gifts," while the profits were termed "blessings."
"They only dealt in cash," Gainer said. "There was one incident where somebody sent them a check. (Greater Ministries) sent it back and said that it had to be cash."
The justification for the cash-only policy was that the federal government is bad and had no jurisdiction over the ministry because of the separation of church and state, Gainer said.
Officials have arrested seven leaders of the organization, Gainer said. Within the next week, officials in West Virginia expect to arrest a state resident in connection with the scam, Gainer said.
When the ministry's headquarters were searched, police found hundreds of unopened envelopes containing cash, he said.
"Apparently, they would just open an envelope and take out money when ever they needed it," Gainer said.
So far, investigators have found up to 21,281 victims of the alleged scam in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
"We have been in contact with people based on the investigation and records found in Florida," Gainer said. "We have identified a lot of victims, but there are probably others we're not aware of, since it was all cash transactions."
Those who gave money to Greater Ministries should contact the securities division of the state auditor's office at (888) 509-6567, Gainer said.
"We'll try to get their money back to them," he said. "But I don't want to build false hopes. We'll do all we can É but a lot of the money is already gone."
To avoid falling victim to scams, there is help for potential investors, Gainer said.
"First of all, any (investment group) has to be registered with my office to do business in this state," he said.
"We will know if there have been claims filed against them."
Doing such a background check could help residents avoid losses like those experienced by investors in Greater Ministries, Gainer said.
"In the eight years I've been here, this is probably the saddest case I've been involved in," he said.