“Around 7:00 p.m. on a Thursday evening in October, San Diego resident J. Turco opened his front door to a man selling candy on behalf of a youth organization. When Turco turned down the candy but offered two dollars, the man took the money and complained that six dollars would have been better. Annoyed, Turco asked for his money back. The man returned the two dollars but then called Turco an “asshole,” threatened him, and refused to leave his property. Turco called 911, and less than an hour later, after the man had gone, Turco sent an email to Second Chance, the organization the man claimed to represent.
Turns out, not only does Second Chance not employ door-to-door solicitors, but the organization has been plagued by similar complaints for years. The complaints have come from locals as well as people living outside of San Diego.
In early August this year, Henry and Elaine Lucas (not their real names) answered the door to their home in Chico when a man came soliciting donations for “Second Chance.” The organization, he said, helped formerly incarcerated men and women prepare for and find jobs. The Lucases were hesitant about making a donation until the man showed them a check that one of their neighbors had written. They wrote the man a $20 check. A few days later, they saw that their check had been deposited to a San Diego bank, but it had been altered. Someone wrote the name “Earl” on the memo line. Concerned about the practice of altering checks, the Lucases sent an email through the contact submission form on the website of the Second Chance program here in San Diego.
The subject line read: “Door to door solicitation — addition to check sent!!”
Trisha Gooch, the director of development at Second Chance, had to respond the way she’s had to dozens of times in the two and a half years that she’s been with the organization:
“This gentleman did not represent Second Chance. Unfortunately, this is not the first example of fraudulent fundraising we have heard about. We’ve been plagued for the last couple of years with this issue…. Unless the man showed you a 501(c)(3) federal tax document verifying they have a nonprofit named Second Chance…I suggest you put a stop payment on the check.”
Before that, on May 26, Gooch fielded another inquiry, this one from a woman who wrote, “I had a visitor at my door a couple of days ago selling candy bars as a fundraiser for your organization. He briefly flashed a printout of a web page (probably) tucked on the bottom of his plastic, semi-translucent box. He asked for $20 for a pair of candy bars. When I asked him how I could be assured that my money went to the organization, he said he would give me a receipt. He then produced a receipt book that can be purchased at any office supply store.…Was this man a fraud or was he an unsuccessful legitimate fundraiser?”
In the six months prior, Gooch received emails from Castro Valley, North Park, Torrey Highlands, and Tacoma, Washington, among others. Each time, the door-knocker had a different name, different story, and a different selling tactic.
One guy said he was trying to earn money to get his GED; he provided a sheet of signatures from people who had donated. A guy named Reggie said half of the money would go to a battered women’s shelter in Castro Valley. (“He had almost no teeth but was very cordial…and showed me a stack of one-dollar bills from his candy sales.”) A man named William Dorsey told a story so touching that the homeowners wrote him a $500 check.
The couple contacted Gooch to praise Dorsey and the organization for the great work it’s doing and to ask for an emailed recognition of the donation tax purposes.
Others also asked for receipts in their emails. At least one wrote to admonish Second Chance for questionable practices, and others wrote to report suspicious activity.
Gooch and other administrators at Second Chance have wanted to find out who’s behind this scam, but they have been advised against it.
“Our lawyers say it would cost too much money to pursue the perpetrators,” says Gooch, “but they seem to drive van loads of young people all over California with the same story.”
The closest they’ve come to uncovering the real identity of any of the scammers was via an April 2012 NBC San Diego news story titled, “Youth Organization Robbed at Gunpoint.” “A van filled with Second Chance Youth workers and their fundraising money was robbed early Monday morning in the 4700 Block of Home Avenue in the Hollywood Park area of San Diego,” the story reported. “One victim tells NBC7 San Diego that the group had just returned from selling candy and merchandise in Chico to raise funds for the non-profit organization that helps young people overcome drugs and violence.”
The victim referred to in the story was a man named Doug McLendon, which also happened to match the name, McLendon Jr, Douglas, that the county clerk had on file as owner of the fictitious business, Second Chance Program.
While the county clerk provides forms for citizens who want to create bank accounts under fictitious business names, they do not check the legitimacy; they only keep the name on file. This one was filed in March of 2007, and it expired on March 7, 2012. The checks, however, are still being deposited.
When contacted by NBC San Diego reporters to comment on the story, Gooch informed them of the fraud. But it was not mentioned in the story, and their later attempts to connect with the reporters to get more information on McLendon went unanswered.
In late May of this year, following reports of suspicious activity in the name of Second Chance in North Park, the San Diego Police Department posted the following on NextDoor.com: “All persons working as interviewers, solicitors, peddlers or vendors of merchandise, services, magazines, etc. are required to obtain a Police Registration Card. When operating, the card must be displayed on the front of their person…(San Diego Municipal Code 33.1402). This card is white in color, has a photo, tracking number, and identifying information along with official City of San Diego background/seal.”
Along with legal hours of operation and age requirements for licensed solicitors as well as rules pertaining to “Do Not Solicit” signs, the post also points out California Civil Code Section 1689 et. Seq., which “requires solicitors to provide a contract for buyers allowing a ‘3-day cooling-off period’ for sales of $25 or more.”
“In short,” it reads, “it is highly unlikely for a person who knocks on your door to be legitimately operating and in compliance with our Municipal Code and the State Laws…a percentage of these are merely posing as solicitors for purposes of criminal enterprise.”
Gooch emphasizes that Second Chance never solicits door to door.