AUSTIN, TX (KXAN) — Neighbors and police are raising concerns about a group claiming to raise money in order to send care packages to military members deployed overseas.
“Just the fact that we have somebody out here that’s portraying that they want to do that and that’s preying on the heart strings of our community is just unacceptable,” said Leander Police Chief Greg Minton.
Callers in Leander reported someone soliciting donations earlier this month for a group called United Soldier Outreach. Minton noticed a few red flags. First, the organization was willing to accept cash. They also seemed willing to break city rules. Minton says Leander requires a permit for solicitors and the city does not allow going door-to-door on a Sunday. He says United Soldier Outreach didn’t have a permit and they were soliciting on a Sunday.
Leander is hardly the only community raising concerns about United Soldier Outreach. Media in the Houston and San Antonio areas also found neighbors and police reporting similar interactions. Now, potential donors report seeing them in Steiner Ranch, Leander, Cedar Park, Georgetown and Wells Branch.
“It was touching it was nice to see people helping other people. That’s what I thought at first,” said Jason Matel, who gave money to the group.
Matel said he wrote someone claiming to be with United Soldier Outreach a $40 check. But, after reading information online, Matel decided to put a stop payment order on the check. He said the person who came to his door was carrying a laminated card listing different sponsorship levels. The group’s website lists options up to a $1,088 sponsorship.
“Several of them had out of state licenses. None of it made much sense.” – Officer Antonio Alvarez, Cedar Park Police
The receipts the organization leaves have a header with the text “United Soldier Outreach LLC,” which means it is a for-profit company. But the Texas Secretary of State has no record of such a company in its online system. The West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office shows a United Soldier Outreach LLC, but that company’s registration has been revoked since 2013. The West Virginia Secretary of State’s website also notes the company did not file an annual report. There is no record of a charity named United Soldier Outreach in the online IRS database or on the non-profit tracking website Guidestar.
KXAN sent an email with a list of questions to the email address listed on the organization’s website. We never heard back. We called the listed phone number for the group, but it was not a working number.
Police did catch up with members of the organization in Cedar Park.
“They said they were based out of San Antonio,” said Cedar Park Police Officer Antonio Alvarez. “Several of them had out of state licenses. None of it made much sense.”
Alvarez says he wrote four people tickets for soliciting without a permit. However, Alvarez said they also did not seem to have money on them at the time. Alvarez, a Marine Corps veteran who had tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, says the situation seemed suspicious.
“It’s just heartbreaking is what it is. It’s just not fair.” – Jason Matel
“It’s almost like an act of stolen valor. They [are] basically taking people’s patriotism and taking advantage of it,” said Alvarez.
In Georgetown, not too far from Jason’s house, police arrested 18-year-old Fary Espinosa, on a drug charge. A court record detailing Espinosa’s arrest states Espinosa told the officer he worked for United Soldier Outreach. The officer wrote that Espinosa had a small roach that “returned a presumptive positive for synthetic marijuana.”
After we reached out to Espinosa, he called KXAN from the Williamson County Jail. He said he believed that United Soldier Outreach was a legitimate organization and that he was hired after hearing about the company in the Houston area.
“Always double check before you give money. One thing we never recommend is giving cash. Cash can’t be traced. Cash can’t be given back,” said Chief Minton. “If you need to donate or feel the need to donate you can use a check, because a check is something you can track. A check is something you can cancel. But always do your research.”
Bottom line: no one has been able to tell us where the money for United Soldier Outreach goes.
“It’s just heartbreaking is what it is. It’s just not fair. It’s not fair to soldiers who do sacrifice so much. It’s not fair to the people who think they’re helping them,” said Matel.