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| May 29, 2003

Garden City? Try Scam City, at least for this month, when at least two different scammers have used entirely different sorts of green thumbs to attempt—in at least one case successfully—to separate Missoula area businesses and residents from their hard-earned cash by banking on the stolen names of some of Missoula’s best-known do-gooders.

Montana PRIDE executive director Karl Olson and the Montana Public Interest Research Group, respectively, were the unwitting tools of the apparently unrelated fishing expeditions, and local gay-friendly businesses and an unknown number of Rattlesnake neighborhood residents were the targets of what looks from a distance like the actions of a deeply troubled individual and a stranded college kid desperate for beer money, again respectively.

The way Olson tells the story, gay-supportive businesses, apparently culled from the Gay Yellow Pages, began receiving phones calls throughout the weekend of the 18th and continuing at least through last Thursday. The caller identified himself as Karl Olson, acted disoriented and upset, said he was calling from San Diego, that he had been gay-bashed and robbed, and needed cash wired to a friend—the caller provided a name—immediately. At least one local business—which is so embarrassed about the episode that it doesn’t wish to admit having been victimized publicly—wired $500, Olson says. Others smelled something fishy and called PRIDE offices in Helena to check the story out. As it turned out, creepily enough, Olson was in fact out of town, though not in San Diego, and couldn’t be contacted.

“The frustrating thing about this is that the scam artist tapped into a community that is compassionate,” Olson says. PRIDE has sent out an alert to gay organizations nation-wide, but without documented repeats, there’s not much local law enforcement can do, and the Feds don’t get involved with anything under $1000.

Anyone documentably friendly to gay people is urged, of course, not to wire money to strangers without some bleeding documentation, for Christ’s sake.

•••

Meanwhile, at another low point on the ever-widening spectrum of human self-entertainment at the expense of any fellow citizen we can find, MontPIRG executive director David Ponder reports that on a Saturday early this month he received a phone call from a Rattlesnake resident reporting that a somewhat suspicious male had knocked at her door, presented himself as a MontPIRG canvasser, gone away when she told him she was busy, and failed to come back. Only problem was, MontPIRG isn’t canvassing this summer, having decided to change strategic tacks, in the face of philanthropic cutbacks being felt everywhere, and canvass only every other summer, renewing memberships and soliciting via more cost-effective phone and direct mail in the meantime.

The tipster—like everyone else in Missoula, with canvassing experience herself—noticed that the imposter carried a clipboard, just like a real MontPIRG canvasser would, and knew through the grapevine that MontPIRG wasn’t canvassing this summer.

“It’s kind of a bummer,” says Ponder, “that somebody is trying to take that credit and trust we’ve developed with our members.”

So far, there’s only one report of the canvasser, but like PRIDE’s Karl Olson, Ponder wants to get the word out to potential scammees: MontPIRG is not canvassing this summer. If anyone comes to your door canvassing for anybody, do three things to protect yourself:

Ask for ID. If you make a contribution, write a check, and don’t give cash to any organizational canvasser who won’t take a check. Lastly, get a receipt.

“Canvassing,” Ponder stresses, “is a very important tool for organizations doing social change work. Don’t dismiss canvassers because of this. Take a common sense approach.”

And if someone claiming they’re from MontPIRG tries to canvass you this summer, call MontPIRG and/or the cops.

Jesus, do we have to tell you people everything?

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