Beware of 'celebrity philanthropy' scam

LOS ANGELES "It breaks my heart when you read these letters," said Lou Ferrigno. That's the reaction from the world bodybuilding champion and actor to several recent letters sent by complete strangers to his home.

Ferrigno, who starred in the recent comedy, "I Love You, Man," is best known as the Hulk from the television series "The Incredible Hulk."

And, the "Hulkster" says it sounded more like a "huckster" behind a recent letter writing campaign asking for money.

A Missouri company called Emerald Press sent letters across the country offering what it claims is a "secret underground list of millionaires," including multimillionaire philanthropists willing to send certified checks for up to $10,000 or more to people in need, just for the asking.

For 1999, consumers received a list of private foundations and phone numbers and home addresses of famous Hollywood stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Kelsey Grammer, Billy Ray Cyrus, Shirley MacLaine, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, even actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"These people are believing it," said Ferrigno. "They have no money but they're putting money out to receive a monetary donation."

Fred Sommer, of Tacna, Arizona, was one of those who fell for the pitch. The 79-year-old retiree and ex-Marine lives with his wife, Flo, in the tiny desert town east of Yuma. He sent out 184 letters to celebrities asking for money.

"I received not one penny," said Sommer.

Sommer lives on a fixed income and says he could use some extra money. So in his letter, he requested $4,000 from each celebrity he wrote.

He had hoped to use the money to build a new shed in his backyard as a workshop, and to pay off medical bills for his 81-year-old wife who has been ill.

"I kind of thought like it was begging, which I didn't feel comfortable with. But after reading the information, it sounded like if these people do these things, why not take advantage of it," said Sommer.

Of the 184 letters he sent out, in which he spent more than $80 in stamps, Sommer got about half of them returned, because the addresses were not valid or were undeliverable.

Only a handful of people wrote back, all denying his request for money. But he did get a call from one star.

Veteran actor Earl Holliman, who won a Golden Globe for his performance in the 1956 movie, "The Rainmaker," and starred in the first episode of the original "Twilight Zone" TV series, spoke with Sommer about his unusual request.

Holliman says that over a couple of weeks, he received about 10 letters from strangers asking for money.

"The money they asked for -- 2,000; 6,000; 10,000 -- and I thought, 'how odd,'" said Holliman.

Emerald Press is owned by a Missouri businessman named Lance Murkin. The Better Business Bureau of Kansas City has received numerous complaints about Murkin and his companies for years involving "unsubstantiated earnings claims."

"If you get a letter from someone who says they need a new car or whatever, you're probably not going to break both legs reaching for your checkbook to send this guy some money," said Bill Mitchell, president and CEO of the /*Better Business Bureau of the Southland*/. "People don't do that whether you're a celebrity or a multimillionaire, they just don't do it."

Two years, ago, the Missouri Attorney General fined Murkin for taking money from consumers for selling lists of grant money that were non-existent.

Murkin told us he "only sold a small quantity of the books."

The celebrities should not have been put on that list.

Emerald Press attorney Thayer Lindauer says the company stopped filling orders in August.

"The researcher who prepared that list should not have done that and it caused that book to be pulled -- it's not offered," said Lindauer.

Ferrigno continued to receive letters asking for money weeks after Emerald told Eyewitness News it stopped selling the lists.

After Eyewitness News contacted Murkin he wrote an apology letter to Ferrigno, saying, "I'm sorry for any problems this may have caused you. We will not publish the book or that list again."

"It's heartbreaking," said Holliman. "Then you think, some scrounge out there is taking advantage of that and offering for 20 bucks, giving them false hope."

Some of the celebrities that appeared on the secret millionaires list are dead, including Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Shelley Winters.

And many of the addresses are old or not accurate.

After Eyewitness News contacted Emerald Press, the company said they would offer to pay back the money to anyone who purchased the "millionaires list" and asked for a refund.

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