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Preacher sells debt removal through prayer

February 28, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Peter Popoff has been preaching about God and money for decades.

His shows that he pays BET and other cable and TV channels to appear on are non-stop crusades about spirituality and overcoming addictions, but most of all, they're about helping people erase mountains of debt.

"I'm telling you that God teaches in His word that He wants to cancel, erase, wipe out, obliterate your debt," Popoff says in a video ad.

Popoff claims he has delivered miracles to hundreds of thousands of people supernaturally.

He sends his followers tons of mail, including small vials of "miracle spring water" and debt cancellation kits, then asks his viewers to send small donations. In return, Popoff promises -- as a messenger of God -- to heal and unlock the secrets of financial security and wipe out all debt.

"Fundamentally, he's just a con man," said Ole Anthony, president of Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based watchdog group that investigates fraud in religious ministries, including televangelism. "Supernatural debt cancellation or debt cancellation is just hogwash. There's no spiritual justification or biblical justification for any of the things that they do."

The Trinity Foundation has been monitoring Peter Popoff Ministries for years.

Volunteers watch hours of his TV shows and they sift though massive amounts of mailings that Popoff sends to his followers, soliciting donations while promising miracles.

Janet Morgano of Boynton Beach, Fla., described herself as a desperate, former follower of Popoff.

A single mother of two, Morgano had been injured in a car accident, living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to make ends meet.

She began sending Popoff money, hoping it would help turn her life around.

"In the beginning it was for $20, $28, $30, but three or four months ago, he asked for $1,001," Morgano said.

After sending Popoff about $300 to $400, Morgano, who describes herself as a religious, giving person, eventually felt scammed by his ministry.

"I felt foolish, I felt betrayed, I was very upset," Morgano said.

Popoff's ministry, which is based out of offices in the city of Upland, has been under fire for years.

In 1986, well-known magician and skeptic James Randi made an appearance on the Tonight Show telling Johnny Carson that Peter Popoff was a fraud who during revival meetings revealed personal information about his followers that he claimed was conveyed by God. Instead, it was fed to him by his wife by way of a hidden radio transmitter.

Popoff later admitted he used the wireless device. A year later, he filed for bankruptcy.

These days, Randi makes appearances talking to audiences about Popoff.

"He's wearing a hearing aid in his left ear," Randi said. "Now, this is a guy that is supposed to be healing the deaf."

Randi said Popoff is still preying on people who are the most desperate.

"People don't learn, they don't listen, they're very prejudiced in favor of believing anything that comes their way that sounds reasonable to them," Randi said.

According to the most recent IRS documents released by Charity Navigator, Popoff's Ministry took in more than $23.5 million in 2005.

Popoff's compensation was $628,732. His wife and children also received compensation, more than $550,000 combined.

In an interview with Eyewitness News, Popoff's wife Elizabeth said she and her husband have been preaching for some 40 years and stand by what they do.

When asked to answer critics who say he takes advantage of desperate people, Popoff issued a written response.

"As for religious leaders calling me a fraud, that places me in good company," Popoff said. "The religious leaders of Christ's day called him a fake and a demon-possessed fraud. They went so far as to crucify Him. I have no time for my critics, I have a job to do and I'm doing it for God's glory."

Last month, Trinity Foundation's investigations prompted Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, to issue a report blasting some churches and religious organizations like Popoff's for being invisible to the IRS and for operating without government oversight.

Grassley said no state requires religious organizations to register and file financial reports.

However, Trinity Foundation said their findings have led authorities to prosecute several televangelists and their ministries, primarily for tax evasion and tax fraud.

Federal and state agencies would neither confirm nor deny if there is an investigation into Peter Popoff Ministries.


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