The Investigators

Jul 8, 2009 7:43 PM

Undercover investigation of grant writing seminars

In these tough financial times people are always looking for a way to make some extra money. Yet, promises of additional income sometimes cost consumers more than they ever earn.

One avenue people use to find extra money is trying to earn government grants. It's free money, if you can get it, or so they claim.

A Florida company claims they can show you how to write a grant and get that government cash. They came to Tucson to give seminars, so the News 4 Investigators checked them out to see if what they promote is the real deal.

Mortgage meltdowns and credit catastrophes are eating us alive, financially. So, many people are looking for a way out of the mess.

J. Terrence Wilson with National Grants Conferences tells the crowd, "[I'll] give you a marketing technique that got me a lot of clients in my fly fishing business."

We spent three hours listening to National Grants Conferences pitch seminars and software to people hungry for government grants.

We didn't learn how to get those grants at this session.

Wilson tells the crowd, "You might be one of them that gets a tiny-weeny little fraction of a trillion dollars"

But, at the end of the talk, the audience was asked to pay $999.00 for another seminar that would teach them how to get those grants.

$999.00 was the discounted rate for signing up that night. Normally it's $1,200.00. These are just base rates.

Here are three things you should know about National Grants Conferences.

First off, a grant expert tells us the information they're trying to sell to you is available for free on the internet or at the Pima County Public library.

Secondly, a simple internet search of inputting just the company's name, reveals hundreds of complaints from people around the country.

Thirdly, some Better Business Bureaus nationwide rate the company with an F.

Separately, the Attorney General in Vermont sued the company and forced them to tone down their advertising and the claims they were making.

Denis Johnston of Oro Valley paid for the seminars, but after giving National Grants Conferences $4,100.00, says he's left with incompatible software and no follow-up help from the company as he was promised, despite his repeated calls and emails.

Johnston tells us, "They're very slick at avoiding answering the question directly. Some people are very gifted with that. I think P.T. Barnum and Bailey had the hawkers out in front saying the fat lady, who wasn't really that spectacular, but they got your nickel and they bought you in. Well, they got my dime."

Kim States with the Southern Arizona BBB tells News 4, "It would indicate to consumers to steer clear of doing business with this company, based on the pattern of complaints that we're seeing."

States says that National Grants Conferences throws up all kinds of red flags to her, like having a website with minimal, sketchy information on it and sending postcards in the mail to would-be clients.

Those cards promise rewards to those who attend the first, free seminar, like this voucher several Tucsonans got in the mail. It says to bring the card to the conference and get a $500.00 merchant redemption voucher to big name places like The Home Depot, JC Penney, and Toys 'R Us.

This promotion was news to Toys 'R Us.

In an email statement, Jennifer Albano with Toys 'R Us Corporate Communications informs us, "Toys 'R Us is not a partner of this organization and had no prior knowledge of the vouchers you say they have been distributing. This is the first we've heard of it."

We showed up with a hidden camera at the seminar where folks paid about a thousand dollars to learn how to apply for government grants.

We tell a staff member, "We have heard some complaints locally about the operation and [we] had a few questions for you." He responds, "Well, actually, umm, what I would like to do is, I mean, have you contacted our corporate office?" We say, "No." He tells us, "That's probably the route that we should go."

Then, he asked the hotel clerks if they could get us to leave, which we did.

We took our information over to the University of Arizona to talk with Michelle Pitot, an expert who teaches grant writing.

Pitot says, "If you go to www.grants.gov and you start looking into eligibility for federal grants, it'll tell you right up front, 'We don't grant money to individuals.'"

She says it's very difficult to get state or local grants as an individual or as a new applicant.

She adds, "[You] have to be more than a good writer. You have to be someone who can create a budget [and] someone who can write outcomes that are measurable."

The BBB's Kim States tells us, "So, to think that you're going to walk into a workshop in Tucson, Arizona, and pay three or four or five thousand dollars to get a return on your money for hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government, um, is just not realistic."

In order to be balanced, we contacted National Grants Conferences multiple times by phone and e-mail. They didn't respond to our repeated requests for an interview.

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