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Group that Saves Animals Given Phony Donation

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Original Title:
Animal Rescue Group Stung by Phony Donation

A local animal welfare group that survives almost entirely on donations thought it got a blessing in the mail. But the $95,000 check turned out to be part of an elaborate scam.

The initial surprise came in the mail last Tuesday. It was a cashier's check from a New Jersey bank in the amount of $95,000.

"We're really grateful when anybody writes us any check. But to have a big check come in, it's a real boost," said Ed Stewart of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). The donation represents about 6 percent of the Galt-based organization's annual budget. PAWS cares for rescued exotic and performing animals at three wildlife sanctuaries.

A brief note on the letterhead of a reputable publishing firm accompanied the check. "This donation is to assist in your humanitarian and compassionate efforts," the note explained.

PAWS deposited the check at the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Galt, where bank staff said it appeared genuine. "It was just as legitimate looking as anything could be," said Pat Derby of PAWS. "It was a cashier's check, and in my mind a cashier's check is like cash money."

And then the spending began. "When you get a big check you pay some bills that you've been sort of holding," explained Derby. PAWS bought equipment, paid feed bills and other obligations.

On Monday came the second surprise -- a call from the bank. Five days of euphoria over a flush bank account came to a sudden end with the news the check was no good.

"It's really devastating, horrible what people do," said Derby as she fought back tears.

PAWS contacted the purported donor and learned the publishing firm is also a victim of the fraud. A fax from O'Reilly Media explains "our company has no affiliation with the individual(s) involved in the scam. We regret any inconvenience this may have caused your organization."

A spokesperson for O'Reilly Media told News10 the firm is aware of "a couple dozen" non-profits that received phony donations in the company's name. "We were shocked at first, until we realized how easy it is to do," said Sara Winge.

The donations appear to be the initial step in a variation of the so-called "Nigerian Scam."

Based on what happened to at least one other non-profit involved in the scam, O'Reilly Media warned PAWS a secondary letter from the con artists might ask for a partial refund of the donation. The publishing firm said it has notified authorities in both the United States and Canada. The phony donation to PAWS arrived with a Canadian postmark.

PAWS did not receive a second letter from the crooks before the check bounced. Because the scam did not play out completely, PAWS did not actually lose money. But the organization is now in the uncomfortable position of stopping payment on outgoing checks and contacting creditors to explain what has happened.

"We were very happy for four or five days," Ed Stewart said of the riches-to-rags story. "But we're pretty tough and we can take it."

(This story was provided by News10 KXTV Sacramento.)

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