By Christopher Maag
If you’ve ever channel surfed late into the night, you’ve probably seen Peter Popoff. He’s a televangelist who looks the part, with hair the colour of black shoe polish, teeth as white as light bulbs, and a voice that manages to be screeching, nasal and guttural at the same time.
“God is touching hurting people around the world,” Popoff says in a recent video on his website, sitting in a wingback chair beside his wife, Elizabeth. “It’s always such a joy to share the reality of that joy. It’s a joy to share the reality of his saving power, healing power, delivery power, and … debt cancelling power! Amen!”
Popoff has been a preacher for over three decades. While the specifics change over time, Popoff’s basic message remains largely the same: that God wants us to be affluent and debt-free, and that Popoff is a prophet sent by God to help people transform their lives from poverty to affluence.
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“Debt cancellation is part of God’s plan,” Popoff says in the video posted to his website, as a little dog sleeps in his lap. “That’s why God sent me to you. How would you ever know about miraculous debt cancellation, erasure of your debts if someone didn’t tell you about it?”
Another thing that remains consistent: Multiple times throughout his career, Popoff has been exposed as a fraud. The first big revelation happened on the Johnny Carson show in 1986, where the magician James Randi played secret audiotapes revealing Popoff’s scam as a faith healer. Before every revival event Popoff led, Popoff’s staff and his wife Elizabeth would interview audience members about their health problems., and they would collect prayer cards from the audience. As Peter worked the room, his wife would point out vulnerable people for him to approach, and tell him about their physical ailments, via a small radio receiver stuck in Popoff’s ear.
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Not long after that show aired, Popoff declared bankruptcy. But the setback proved temporary. Popoff started over, and by 2005 his “ministry” was earning more than $24 million a year.
If anything about Popoff is truly miraculous, it’s his resilience. No matter how many times his claims are debunked, he seems to bounce back with another version of the same old scam. Popoff has promised to cancel peoples’ debts using holy water and blessed oil. He has claimed to be a prophet who can heal peoples’ illnesses by slapping them on the head. He promises to use God’s power to help people become rich.
These claims have been exposed as falsehoods many times. After the Johnny Carson debacle, Popoff has been tailed by everyone from Inside Edition to local TV news stations from Los Angeles to Atlanta. After each investigation, Popoff seems to bounce back, launching new crusades and finding new victims.
“We’ve done so many stories about him, but it never does any good,” says Ole Anthony, founder of Trinity Foundation, which has investigated Popoff and other faith healers since 1987. “His scams are endless.”
Credit.com called and emailed Peter Popoff Ministries numerous times, but received no response. So we decided to run a little test ourselves. In the process we discovered that Popoff’s biggest scam doesn’t happen on television; it’s carried out through the mail.
Fat Envelopes, Big Promises
Apparently God wants me—yes me!—to be free of debt. In a rambling five-page letter, Peter Popoff tells me that God has instructed him to stop touring the nation and devote all his energy to erasing my debt.
And now God wants me to do the same.
“It’s time for you, Chris, to shift gears and enter into this whole new phase of Miracle living,” Popoff writes in his letter.
I first discovered Peter Popoff by way of Steve Rhode, a personal finance expert who calls himself the “Get Out of Debt Guy.” Back when Steve wrote about Popoff earlier this year, the televangelist was still mailing out vials of blessed holy water, and advising viewers of BET that the water had the power to erase their debt.
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“We’re anointed and appointed to get you healthy and wealthy,” Popoff said in the broadcast, which you can find saved on Rhode’s website.
“Let us send you this miracle faith tool to erase your debt. And we also want to send you this miracle faith water.”
As a guy who writes about debt for a living, I was more than a little curious to get my hands on this water. And if Popoff turned out to be a fraud, which I was pretty sure he would, then maybe I can help more people from becoming victims.
But before writing him off as a con man, first needed to give Popoff’s system an honest try. After all, if Popoff and God actually are working together to cancel debts, then presumably their system should work even for me, a preternaturally disbelieving journalist.
So I started by going to the website for Peter Popoff Ministries. There I filled out a form requesting a “Miracle Spring Water and Debt Cancelling Kit,” giving Popoff my name and address. I also called the phone number on the website. I left messages identifying myself as a journalist and asking Popoff or one of his employees to call me back. No one did.
And then I waited. And waited. I thought perhaps my call informing the organisation that I’m a journalist might have caused them to block my request for a debt cancellation kit, since they surely would suspect that a journalist would be trying to investigate them, not send them money.
But my fears were unnecessary. After about two and a half months, a fat envelope from Peter Popoff Ministries appeared in my mailbox, with the words “How to Supernaturally erase YOUR DEBT!!” written in green ink across the front.
I tore into the envelope hoping to find some spring water. I was immediately disappointed. Instead of a vial of water, I received a rambling five-page letter. It immediately became clear that this process of getting my debts “supernaturally erased” is quite complicated. The letter included a long list of instructions, which I attempted to follow. First I added up all my debts from graduate school and my credit card. I placed the tally, the bills and my checkbook in a pile.
Do Not Open This Envelope
On top of the pile, Popoff instructed, I should place a sealed envelope that he’d mailed me. On the back was a picture of Jesus, plus this warning: “IN JESUS’ NAME… DO NOT OPEN THIS ENVELOPE YOU may STOP YOUR BLESSING,” Popoff had written across the back.
Here, dear reader, I experienced a dilemma. On one hand, I wanted to follow Popoff’s instructions exactly, giving his debt cure the best possible chance of success. On the other hand, I felt a responsibility to tell you everything I could about this alleged scam.
In the end, journalistic integrity beat out spiritual rectitude. I opened the envelope. Inside was a white eraser about the length of my thumb, with the image of a $100 bill printed on one side. The good news is that opening the letter does not necessarily eliminate me from God’s debt-cancelling grace, according to Popoff. “If you have opened it…seal it back up and don’t think about what’s inside,” he writes. “Just know God is going to use it to erase your debt, and I’ll answer you with special scriptural instructions to do so.”
With the envelope tightly resealed and placed upon my pile of debts, I went to sleep. In the morning I filled out a “prayer slip” that contained a grid of 10 “troubles” I may have in addition to debt. Popoff promised to pray over these troubles, too. I checked off seven, as instructed, including “I need stronger faith” and “A person causes me trouble.”
Finally, I wrote Popoff a check for $20. This was optional. As Popoff explains in his letter, “Now, listen, if there is no way you can send that amount now … send $12 and let me know you’ll send the rest when God provides.”
I figured now was not the time to cheap out. I stuffed the prayer slip and a check for $20 into an envelope and mailed it all to Peter Popoff Ministries in Upland, California. Popoff promised to place my envelope on his prayer altar. After that, he would mail me another letter with instructions regarding “THE EXACT WORDS TO SAY…TO RELEASE THE ANGELS TO MINISTER FOR YOU TO CANCEL DEBT…”
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I received the second letter about two weeks later. The instructions for supernatural debt cancellation came, strangely, on a yellow paper napkin. Beneath the printed words was a line drawing of Jesus with his hands outstretched.
I did as I was told. I placed my right hand over Jesus’s right hand. And then I recited this awkward prayer:
“Dear Jesus, As I follow these prophetic instructions release your DOUBLE PORTION ANOINTING into the circumstances of my life…I claim a DOUBLE PORTION Transfer of the anointing into my Health, Finance, Spiritual walk in Jesus’ Name!”
I waited a few days to give the prayer time to work. Then I went online and checked my credit card and student loan accounts. Neither had been erased, supernaturally or otherwise. My Visa actually bill was actually a little higher, thanks to a really tasty Vietnamese dinner I’d charged the night before.
The biggest change: Thanks to Peter Popoff, I was $20 poorer.
The Business of Salvation
I got off easy, of course. Janet Morgano was a single mother of two living in Boynton Beach, Florida. She was taken in by Popoff’s claims of debt cancellation, initially sending him between $20 and $30 at a time.
Then, in late 2010, Popoff sent a letter asking for $1,001. Morgano wound up mailing him over $300, money she desperately needed as she struggled to recover from a car accident and pay her monthly bills.
“I felt foolish, I felt betrayed, I was very upset,” Morgano told a reporter with KABC, the ABC affiliate n Los Angeles.
Other victims have written in web forums, including Christian Issues, edited by Brian Karjala of Colorado Springs, who received a letter from Popoff in 1997. Numerous posters on the site tell of being scammed and warn other Christians to stay away. While most people say they mailed Popoff less than $100, one person writes to say that their father sent $1,000.
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“He has squeezed some money out of me as well,” one person wrote. “Desperate for support from the high, I went along with it because I so badly wanted answers.”
Some desperate people must have been conned into mailing Popoff hundreds or even thousands of dollars, as we can infer from his tax returns from 2005. (That’s the last year for which tax information is available because in 2006 Peter Popoff Ministries changed from a for-profit business into a religious organisation, making it tax-exempt.) The company received $24.5 million in 2005, and it owned properties valued at $5.1 million. The tax forms don’t require Popoff to say where he received the money, other than describing the sources as “Contributions, gifts, grants.”
Popoff himself took $628,732 in compensation, plus another $48,000 for his role as board member and employee of other related entities. His wife Elizabeth took $202,920. Popoff’s son Nickolas received $181,811, and $176,008 went to his daughter Amy.
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Another $1.9 million went to Kelly Media Group of Upland, California, for TV production. Kelly Media is owned by Popoff’s son-in-law, Jason Cardiff.
“He’s committing fraud in the name of God,” says Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation. “That’s what makes me angry.”
An IRS spokesman declined to tell Credit.com whether the agency is investigating Popoff. As a member of the powerful finance committee, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) conducted an investigation of six popular televangelists (not including Popoff). After three years of study, Grassley released a report in January that expressed concerns about TV pastors’ lavish homes, jet planes and huge credit card expenses, but ultimately failed to reach any conclusions about whether the ministries were in violation of IRS rules. Instead, Grassley called on televangelists to police themselves.
“Self-correction can be more effective than government action,” Grassley said in a press release.
“Hook, Line and Sinker”
Popoff’s style and approach stand out from his fellow televangelists, partly because his writing and speaking style seem so confusing to first-time viewers. He is often repetitive, and many of his sentences don’t make any sense.
“Debt closes churches, and opens people’s [sic] lives to more trouble than they can ever deal with in the natural,” Popoff wrote in a letter I received.
But underneath this seemingly childish language lies sophisticated psychological manipulation, says D.J. Grothe, director of the James Randi Educational Foundation, which continues to keep tabs on Popoff’s activities 25 years after Randi’s exposé ran on national television.
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It starts with all that back-and-forth interaction. Popoff didn’t just tell me how to erase my debts; he engaged me in a conversation via the mail, in which I sent him two letters and he responded with two in return. In my case, I received an eraser and a napkin, and was given specific instructions on what to do with them. In the past Popoff has mailed out packets of “Holy Water,” which recipients were told to drink, and he’s also sent “Anointed Oil” with instructions to drizzle it over tallies of their debts.
This whole convoluted process serves two purposes, Grothe says. First, it enables Popoff to identify people naïve or desperate enough to participate. Second, it turns each interaction into a ritual, deepening victims’ psychological attachment to Popoff.
“It’s not passive at all,” says Grothe. “It’s sophisticated psychology designed to find highly bought-in marks, because if you’re communicating back with him, it’s a good bet that you’re already taken hook, line and sinker.”
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Popoff regularly buys late-night air time on BET and other cable channels. The purpose is not to get people calling in immediately with more donations. Rather, the calls Popoff receives from his television programming are converted into more leads for his mailing list, which is his real moneymaker, Anthony says.
All of which makes Poppoff even more nefarious than other TV preachers, according to his longtime critics.
“Most of these guys are fooled by their own theology,” says Anthony, referring to other televangelists he considers scammers, including Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes. But in the case of Popoff, “He’s fundamentally evil. Because he knows he’s a con man.”
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