This story originally appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of the Community Voice. For your own subscription, call 270-384-9454.
A social media post by a local business owner warning others of a dishonest woman asking for donations ended up connecting the business community together and could lead to criminal charges.
Hot Tans owner Beth Stapp said she had donated several times to the woman she now believes was using the money for personal use. She once donated to the woman by writing a check to a church, but learned that the check was cashed at a local retail store.
The woman kept coming back, but Stapp started saying no. Soon after, Stapp received a phone call from someone asking for a donation, and she was surprised when the woman showed up to collect the donation she offered.
Just recently, the woman called again asking for a donation, and Stapp had had enough.
“I don’t post a lot of stuff, but I just wanted to rant basically,” Stapp said.
As business owners start- ed sharing their experiences, it became clear that numerous businesses have given the woman money for what appears to have been multiple fraudulent fundraising projects. They learned they were all duped by the same person using different schemes.
“I was completely floored,” Stapp said. “My in box stayed completely full of other business owners writing me. They all knew who she was; I didn’t have to hardly tell anybody who she was.”
Stapp said it was difficult to understand how the woman had been able to take advantage of so many businesses for so long, with some business sharing stories a year old.
“And it wasn’t one time. She came in multiple times. I’m just amazed at how long it went on for.”
One business owner said the woman had asked for checks for a church to be written out to her then came back a different time taking donations for a child’s travel sports team. Checks would be cashed within minutes of being written.
Some business own- ers reported that she received money for items that were never delivered. She has children in the local school system and some of her victims believed she represented legitimate school pro- grams when they donated to the cause. She would usually have a child with her when she asked for money.
Others said she requested money for a church, one church they later learned never even existed. Several business owners reported that she would come in the business and say she had called and was there to pick up a donation. When the business owner determined that a donation had not been approved, the woman would become argumentative.
While the whole conversation took place on Facebook , only one per- son tagged the woman being discussed and Stapp deleted the comment.
“It wasn’t about pointing a finger,” Stapp said, adding that she only wanted to make others aware of the situation. “This is one time social media did its job.”
Stephanie Feese, owner of Monkey Business, said she and her sister, Alex Antle, owner of Wild and Free, have donated to the woman several times when she claimed to be fundraising for a child’s school or church function. Once, they paid for shirts that were never delivered.
“I thought I was the only one, me and my sis- ter and I was going to let it go,” Feese said. Once she started seeing the feedback on Stapp’s post, she decided the woman needs to be stopped.
“I realized she hit half of Columbia, and I decid- ed it didn’t need to be let go, because she obviously is not going to stop doing this,” Feese said.
Feese has talked with several other business owners who felt the same way she did. They weren’t sure if any legal action could be taken, so Feese decided to find out. She has reached out to the Columbia City Police Department to see if criminal charges can be filed.
Police Chief Jr. Murphy said this week that from some of the details he has heard, there may be cause for criminal charges to be filed. He encourages business owners to con- tact the department and share their experiences so the department has a clear understanding of the allegations.
“There are criminal charges that can be filed, based on the situation. There is theft by decep- tion, failure to make required disposition… there are things that can be done,” Murphy said.
Several business owners have indicated that the woman presented herself as representing school programs but never followed up with products that were being purchased.
Athletic Director Craig Biggs said he was aware of one situation pertaining to misrepresentation prior to his recent hire but did not know details.
Biggs said he hopes that businesses would continue to support school pro- grams and not let the one bad experience change their generosity.
“Our booster clubs are still fundraising,” he said. “I would encourage our community to get out and support as many of our programs as they can; our programs are out trying to generate dollars to operate right now.”
If Stapp is any indication of the community response, Biggs won’t have a need to be concerned. She said she would continue to give, but she will be more careful.
“I donated today,” Stapp said. “This was not about the money. I’m not going to be doing cash donations anymore. A check is what they are getting.”
By Sharon Burton