A Seattle businessman was ordered to pay $7 million in restitution to people he victimized with a "pay to pray" site that preyed on the grieving and desperate.
Benjamin Rogovy, who operated Christianprayercenter.com and a Spanish-language variant of the same site, charged people between $9 and $35 to have a pastor pray on behalf of them or their loved ones, The Guardian reported.
Rogovy's site featured glowing testimonials about the site's pastor, John Carlson, and his success stories, attributing healthy births, negative HIV tests and winning lottery tickets to Carlson's prayers. The site bragged that Carlson saved lives with his appeals to God, with the beneficiaries of his prayers beating cancer and other diseases.
The problem? Carlson wasn't real. He was invented by Rogovy, along with all the cheerful success stories about the power of his prayers, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.
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Ferguson ordered Rogovy to shut down his sites and pay millions to the 125,000 people he scammed. He also ordered the Seattle man to cover the legal fees and court costs of the people he victimized, The Guardian reported.
“I believe in the power of prayer,” Ferguson said in a statement. “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.”
Rogovy's site is among three similar scams targeted by Ferguson's office, according to World Religion News.
In addition to inventing fake pastors and charging people for prayers, Rogovy's sites automatically re-billed customers regularly after receiving their credit card information, the attorney general's office said.
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“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,’” Ferguson said. “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.”
Despite the attorney general's order to shut down and pay restitution, Rogovy hasn't admitted wrongdoing. As of March 24, Christianprayercenter.com greets users with a message saying it's "now closed," with links referring them to other prayer sites.
"We thank you for all the prayers," the site's message to users reads, "and we cherish the opportunity to have created a place where Christians could meet to support each other."