Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced that his office has put a stop to the deceptive business practices of a Seattle-based man and his three companies who will pay back as much as $7,750,000 to approximately 165,000 consumers nationwide.
Benjamin Rogovy used systematic deception in the running of his for-profit company, Christian Prayer Center, including the creation of fake religious leaders and posting false testimonials to entice consumers to pay for prayers.
In a separate business, Rogovy used deceptive and unfair business practices to run the Consumer Complaint Agency, a for-profit business that promised consumers it would advocate on their behalf regarding their complaints against businesses. Instead, the company charged consumers up to $25 for doing little more than passively forwarding complaints.
Rogovy’s actions violate the state Consumer Protection Act, which forbids businesses from making false claims, and the Charitable Solicitations Act, which prohibits churches and charities from using misleading or deceptive statements in any charitable solicitation.
“I believe in the power of prayer,” said Ferguson. “What I do not believe in and what I will not tolerate is unlawful businesses that prey upon people — taking advantage of their faith or their need for help — in order to make a quick buck.”
Assistant Attorney General Dan Davies was lead on this case.
Christian Prayer Center
Christian Prayer Center (CPC) offered prayers for $9 – $35 in English through the websitewww.christianprayercenter.com, and in Spanish through the websitewww.oraciancristiana.org. Both websites were recently shut down.
Rogovy and the CPC created fake religious leaders and posted false testimonials in order to attract consumers. The CPC claimed that “Pastor John Carlson” solely ran the sites. It would send weekly inspirational emails to consumers under the pastor’s name, and even created a fake LinkedIn profile that described the Pastor’s experience as “Senior Pastor, Christian Prayer Center, January 2009 — present.” CPC also used the name “Pastor Eric Johnston” to sign consumer correspondence. Neither of these people exist.
CPC also stated, “One of our pastors . . . is also happy to assist with any religious ceremonies . . .” This statement gave the impression CPC had multiple pastors who regularly consulted on religious issues. In fact, it had none. Rather, the websites were a for-profit corporation with multiple employees and independent contractors.
The deception didn’t stop there. The websites contained fictitious testimonials from consumers using stock photos that claimed they successfully prayed to avoid home foreclosure, deliver a healthy baby, win the lottery, obtain negative results on an HIV test and put cancer into remission.
Additionally, the websites used a deliberately confusing webpage to lock consumers into recurring monthly payments. The AGO investigation found that once consumers submitted and paid for a prayer request, they were directed to a Web page that gave them the option to receive “continued blessings.” The information was presented in a confusing manner and inadequately disclosed that the charges would reoccur until the consumer cancelled.
Between 2011 and 2015, CPC collected more than $7 million from 125,000 consumers nationwide. Some of these consumers were charged repeatedly, resulting in a total of over 400,000 transactions.
Rogovy employed similar deceptive tactics including the creation of a fictional “Pastor Parker Robinson” in the running of a second for-profit on-line entity, Christian National Church (CNC).
Agreement and recovery:
As part of the agreement announced today, Christian Prayer Center must return money to all eligible consumers. Depending on how many consumers file a complaint, this could be over $7 million.
Additionally, CPC and CNC must:
- Stop all unfair and deceptive business practices;
- Clearly present and disclose payment information;
- Pay $500,000 and attorney costs and enforcement fees; and
- Be subject to $1,000,000 in civil penalties that are suspended as long as terms of the agreement aren’t violated.
Christian Prayer Center claims process
Consumers nationwide who purchased prayer services from Christian Prayer Service or Oracion Cristiana between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2015 can receive a full refund.
By April 8, 2016 all affected consumers will receive an email from Christian Prayer Center alerting them to the opportunity to file a complaint to receive a refund. To be eligible, consumers must file a complaint with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office by June 12, 2016.
File a complaint here.
CPC will then mail checks to eligible consumers.
Consumer Complaint Agency
Rogovy also ran the for-profit business, Consumer Complaint Agency (CCA) which purported to provide robust complaint services for a fee of up to $25 through its website,www.consumercomplaintagency.org. This website was also recently shut down.
The AG’s investigation found CCA used deceptive and misleading tactics on its website. The CCA misrepresented its status, making itself look like an official government agency by using a governmental-looking seal and stating consumers should file an “official complaint” and that it would “hold businesses officially accountable.”
CCA also gave the impression that it would provide professional legal assistance to consumers, using legal terms throughout the complaint process such as “case number” and stating it could “take action on your behalf.” CCA is not an official government agency, nor does it employ or work with any attorneys.
Instead, CCA merely forwarded a consumer’s complaint on to the business and asked it to respond within 15 days. The most CCA would do is mark the business as “unsatisfactory” on its website if the business didn’t respond favorably to the consumer.
From 2011 to 2015 approximately 40,000 consumers nationwide, including 1,000 Washingtonians, purchased this service for a total of over $750,000.
As with Rogovy’s other businesses, CCA used a testimonial from a fictional person and fabricated quotes to endorse its services. Additionally, CCA did not disclose the fee until after the consumer filled out a complaint form. When consumers did inquire about a refund, CCA unfairly threatened them with financial and legal penalties.
Agreement and recovery: Consumer Complaint Agency
As part of the agreement announced today CCA must pay $750,000 back to consumers.
Additionally, CCA must:
- Stop all unfair and deceptive business practices;
- Clearly present and disclose payment information; and
- Pay $100,000 in attorney costs and fees.
Consumer Complaint Agency refund process
Consumers nationwide who purchased services from Consumer Complaint Agency between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2015, and have not already received a refund, will receive a full refund.
CCA will proactively mail checks to eligible consumers by March 14, 2016. No claim needs to be filed by CCA consumers.