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Out-of-town scammers target local residents

Door-to-door sales people allegedly requested donations for nonexistent groups

The Portland metro area recently was targeted in a scam involving the sale of magazine subscriptions and requests for donations - both allegedly to support local youths.

Although the sales took place in almost all communities in the metro area, West Linn police were the first to determine that it was illegal and to arrest two of the scammers.

Officers say a magazine subscription company in Georgia that provides the fund-raising opportunity is likely legal, but asking for donations for a non-existent group is deceptive and illegal.

When the word got out about the arrests, people started calling police in other communities. More arrests occurred soon thereafter in Lake Oswego and Washington County.

There was likely nothing wrong with the subscription sales, say law enforcement officers, but the sellers played with the emotions of their victims by telling them that it was a fund-raiser for athletic teams.

They asked for donations and sold subscriptions to gain money for such non-existent causes as the baseball programs at Portland Community College and University of Oregon. Neither school has a baseball team.

Oregon has a club team but hasn't had a NCAA-sanctioned team since 1981.

On April 3, West Linn police arrested two men in the 19000 block of Bellevue Way after they had been selling subscriptions and collecting donations for the bogus baseball teams.

Jeremiah S. Conner, 20, was lodged at the Clackamas County Jail for theft by deception and Thomas R. Kintigh was cited and released for not having a valid business license. The two also are believed to have canvassed Lake Oswego for similar donations and sales.

On April 5, two teen-age girls told unsuspecting victims in Lake Oswego that they were cheerleaders at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, and began collecting donations and selling subscriptions around Lake Oswego. They also allegedly named the University of Oregon and Doernbecher Children's Hospital as the beneficiaries of their sales and/or donations.

Later that day, Amanda Wheatley, 18, of Newark, Ohio, and Tasha Mitchell, 19, of Warsaw, Ind., were arrested at their hotel in Portland for theft by deception.

The two teens apparently had been cited and released in San Jose, Calif., reported Lake Oswego Police Captain Don Forman, who had seen a newspaper story on that arrest.

When one Lake Oswego woman was told that the alleged scammers were fund-raising for a local children's hospital, the woman asked if it was Oregon Health and Science University's Doernbecher Children's Hospital. ''Yes, that's the one,' they said,' Michael Hammons, Lake Oswego Police Department spokesman, said. 'Their demeanor made her suspicious, so she ran their names through Google.'

The search engine turned up many articles about the pair's previous arrests for suspected door-to-door scams in other states, including California. Having already written Mitchell and Wheatley $40 checks, the woman called Lake Oswego police.

By the time investigators tracked the subscription sellers to the Portland hotel, police said Mitchell, Wheatley and most of the other members of the group were already headed to the Seattle area.

'As it turns out, they were all sitting around watching the news,' Hammons said. 'When they saw that two members of their crew - Conner and Kintigh - had been picked up by West Linn cops, the manager came in and said, 'pack up; let's get out of here.''

But the group left behind a woman and her 2-year-old child to assist Conner and Kintigh, police said. When Lake Oswego investigators showed up at her hotel room, they convinced the woman to get Mitchell and Wheatley, en route to Seattle, to turn around and come back to the hotel, where they were arrested.

A Lake Oswego police investigation showed that the average sales per day for the group was $300, but Mitchell's deceptive tactics were bringing in more than $1,200 a day.

Since this information has been made public, numerous callers have told police that they had been victimized or contacted by different people with similar requests for donations or to purchase subscriptions.

Last week, West Linn detectives were receiving so many calls that they stopped writing reports unless the loss, or fake donation, was for $250 or more, according to Sgt. Neil Hennelly.

Michael MacRae, a spokesman for Doernbecher Children's Hospital Foundation, said the hospital does have a fund-raising program involving the sale of magazine subscriptions. But the program is conducted entirely by telephone through DialAmerica Marketing.

Spring is always a popular time for door-to-door magazine sales, and police say they have long been suspicious of the traveling groups. In March, the Department of Justice, for the first time, sent a letter to police chiefs across the state warning of scamming sales crews.

The groups are part of a largely unregulated industry that can be, not only fraudulent, but also dangerous. Industry watchers cite more than 275 known felony charges against door-to-door traveling magazine subscription sales agents, including dozens of sexual assaults against women who opened their doors to them.

In 2005, a man claiming to be a magazine salesman forced his way into a Sellwood woman's home and sexually assaulted her. Portland police are still investigating that crime.

'If people are soliciting at your door, I advise you not to donate,' Hammons said. 'Many of them are not who they claim to be.'

Hennelly also warns local residents to be wary of people they do not know to be local residents.

'If you believe that the sales people at your door are not who they claim to be,' Hennelly said, 'or they are using tactics similar to the people we arrested, contact the police department at 503-655-6214.'

Ryan Geddes of Pamplin Media Group contributed to this report.

Protection from scams

The Department of Justice suggests these tips to protect yourself from door-to-door scam artists:

n Be suspicious of receipts where the delivery name and address for the subscription is different than the address of the purchaser. Be suspicious also if the subscription is to be delivered to a non-profit or is a 'donation' sometimes to a vague charitable cause.

n If the sales person suggests that the purchaser makes a donation to a specific Oregon nonprofit, this is illegal without the prior written consent of the nonprofit (ORS 128.856).

n Sales people often try to convince consumers that they are local students or members of sports teams to make a sale. Sales agents have also used threatening behavior or intimidating tactics to buy something that the consumer normally would not buy.