MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A Muskegon pastor called the federal fraud investigation into his son’s online face mask sales a “witch hunt.”
“He is innocent. My son is the most honest person that you’ll probably meet,” said Rodney Stevenson, pastor of Rivers of Living Waters Ministries, International, in Muskegon. “He is an honor student and a devout believer.”
“Unfortunately, they didn’t allow him time to respond (to the accusations) … It was just a witch hunt that could have been avoided if they had allowed us to simply respond,” said Rodney Stevenson in a phone call with Target 8.
Federal prosecutors last week filed wire fraud charges against Rodney Stevenson II.
According to a criminal complaint filed in California, PayPal records showed the younger Stevenson’s company, EM General, LLC, generated $140,000 in sales, mostly between Feb. 5 and Feb. 26.
“A substantial portion of the transactions involved the sale of N95 masks by EMG,” wrote federal authorities in the complaint.
In the document, investigators specifically identified four alleged victims, three of whom live in California, the U.S. state hit earliest by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s why the federal charges were filed in California.
“Defendant sought to obtain money and property by falsely marketing and selling N95 respirator masks and N99 filters that he did not possess and did not intend to provide to customers,” wrote investigators in the federal complaint.
Target 8 checked Michigan business records and discovered Rodney Stevenson II isn’t the only person connected to EM General, LLC.
While the 24-year-old is listed as the company’s “manager,” his father, Rodney Stevenson, 54, is listed as a “member.”
EM General has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau Serving Western Michigan, which the watchdog agency said was “due in large part to the more than 180 complaints from across the country since March 9, 2020.”
“David from Traverse City was one of those customers,” wrote a BBB representative in a news release Wednesday.
“(David in Traverse City) tells the BBB he paid nearly $140 for four marks in February that were not delivered. When he reached out for answers he was given a response from a man identifying himself as Mike. T., CEO of EM General. Mike T. indicated the orders had been delayed, but inventory had just arrived and was now shipping to consumers. David never received his masks and was told refunds were not available,” reported the BBB in a release issued to warn consumers of fraudulent mask sales.
According to the criminal complaint filed in California, the “CEO”, who responded to David in Traverse City and other customers, does not exist.
“Defendant used fake identities, including a fake name and image for its Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer, to fraudulently create the appearance that he was operating as a legitimate and reputable business and to distance himself from the scheme and from customer complaints,” wrote authorities in the complaint.
“To one customer who complained about the company’s failure to deliver masks, defendant caused to be mailed a package of surgical masks that were not N95 respiratory mask and were not worth the amount paid by the customer,” the federal investigator continued in the complaint.
Rodney Stevenson, whose son is facing the federal charges, blamed the company’s difficulties on a credit card company.
“There’s a specific credit card company — I’m not going to name them — but they have been targeting companies and intentionally sabotaging them.
“They’re using their policies … to freeze funds up … locking the merchants out of the account so that they cannot service those customers. And so that is what caused this whole issue,” the pastor told Target 8.
The criminal complaint filed in federal court noted that EM General had filed a civil lawsuit against a global web hosting company and a bank.
According to federal prosecutors, the suit blames those entities for EM General’s inability to refund money to customers who’d cancelled orders once they realized there’d be a substantial delay in their delivery.
But the criminal complaint reports EM General’s lawsuit allegations do not match the evidence.
Rodney Stevenson insisted everything his son did was legal.
“Who registers with the IRS, registers with Michigan, has a Michigan legal bank account, has a father that’s a pastor locally in Michigan, and lives right here locally would start a business and try to hide and deceive people?” Rodney Stevenson asked rhetorically.
“If you have common sense, something about that should say, OK maybe what I’m hearing is not true.”
The pastor told Target 8 his son was actually selling “cycling masks” not “surgical masks.”
But the criminal complaint alleges that EM General’s website clearly described the masks for sale as “N95 respirator masks.”
The BBB Serving Western Michigan said the EM General case is a prime example of why consumers must exercise extreme caution.
“A lot of websites may look legitimate, but are only there to take your money without providing you the item you ordered,” said Phil Catlett, president of the Better Business Bureau Serving Western Michigan.
“If possible, use websites you already know and trust. You should also use a credit card, which will allow you to dispute the charges in the event the purchase goes wrong.”
A link to BBB tips on how to avoid coronavirus-related scams can be found online.