Owner of 'Pay to Pray' Website Ordered to Return $7.8M to Consumers
Authorities called the Christian Prayer Center website "a scam."
— -- The man behind the Christian Prayer Center website, which Washington state authorities say charged people across the U.S. desperate for the power of prayer upward of $35 for spiritual support, is now on the hook to pay back more than $7 million to tens of thousands of customers, the state Attorney General's Office said.
Benjamin Rogovy of Seattle used "systematic deception," according to authorities, while running the for-profit Christian Prayer Center website as well other prayer websites and a consumer complaint service. The yearlong investigation was sparked by a consumer who had written in to the agency, saying she feared she'd been taken advantage of, authorities said.
"At the basic level, it's a scam and he was asking people to give money under deceptive circumstances to have prayers done for them. ... Pay to pray. ... Nothing about it was real," state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.
The Christian Prayer Center website not only charged consumers $9 to $35 for prayers but also "deliberately" confused some consumers into signing up for recurring monthly payments, according to authorities.
"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.' The information was presented in a confusing manner and inadequately disclosed that the charges would reoccur until the consumer cancelled," the Attorney General's Office said in a statement Wednesday, detailing the investigation.
Investigators said that fake religious leaders, stock photos and fictitious testimonials were used to entice nearly 165,000 people between 2011 and 2015. Prayers were offered at www.christianprayercenter.com as well as in Spanish at www.oracioncristiana.org. Both sites have since been shut down.
"Rogovy's actions violate the state Consumer Protection Act, which forbids businesses from making false claims, and the Charitable Solicitations Act, which prohibits churches and charities from using misleading or deceptive statements in any charitable solicitation," the statement said.
The fake testimonials claimed that prayers had helped individuals avoid home foreclosure, win the lottery, as well as have a healthy baby. Rogovy also allegedly created and ran another online site called the Christian National Church.
The Christian Prayer Center website also claimed to be run by a Pastor John Carlson.
"It would send weekly inspirational emails to consumers under the pastor's name, and even created a fake LinkedIn profile that described the Pastor's experience as 'Senior Pastor, Christian Prayer Center, January 2009 — present.' [The Christian Prayer Center] also used the name 'Pastor Eric Johnston' to sign consumer correspondence. Neither of these people exist," the statement said.
The Rev. John Carlson, a pastor outside of Seattle, said that he had been vilified by people who thought he was involved in the website.
"One fellow said, I remember, I was going to hell," Carlson told KOMO-TV.
In addition to the Christian Prayer Center website, authorities said, Rogovy had used "deceptive and unfair business practices" to run the Consumer Complaint Agency, a for-profit business that promised consumers it would advocate on their behalf regarding their complaints against businesses. Ferguson said that instead, the agency had "charged consumers up to $25 for doing little more than passively forwarding complaints."
"You go to his website and it looks very official. There's a seal that looks official," he said. "They forwarded those complaints to a business but that was it. ... Folks paid $25 thinking they had an advocate. ... They went to a con guy, a con man, who just took their money."
Ferguson said the Consumer Complaint Agency site has also been shut down.
"In the work that I do as attorney general, I really see the lowest of the low when it comes to scams -- this one ranks right up there," Ferguson said. "It really is as low as you can get. All to make a buck. ... The good news is he's gotta pay it back."
ABC News could not reach Rogovy for comment.