Peter Popoff

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Peter Popoff
BornPeter George Popoff
(1946-07-02) July 2, 1946 (age 72)
West Berlin, Germany
ResidenceBradbury, California, U.S.
OccupationTelevangelist
Years active1977–present
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Popoff (1970–present)
ChildrenAmy Cardiff, Nickolas Popoff, Alex Popoff

Peter Popoff (born July 2, 1946) is a German-born televangelist. He was exposed in 1986 for using an earpiece to receive radio messages from his wife, who gave him the names, addresses and ailments of audience members during Popoff-led religious services. Popoff falsely claimed God revealed this information to him so that Popoff could cure them by faith healing.[1]

He went bankrupt the next year, but made a comeback in the late 1990s. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Popoff bought TV time to promote "Miracle Spring Water" on late-night infomercials, and referred to himself as a prophet.[2] Business Insider remarked: "No matter how many times his claims are debunked, he seems to bounce back with another version of the same old scam."[3]

Early life and career[edit]

Popoff was born in occupied Berlin (West Berlin) on July 2, 1946, to George and Gerda Popoff. As a child, Popoff emigrated with his family to the United States, where he attended Chaffey College before transferring to the University of California, Santa Barbara, from which he graduated in 1970.[4][5]

Popoff's father preached at revival meetings throughout the United States.[6] Beginning in 1960, Popoff also began making appearances as a preacher.[7] Billed as "The Miracle Boy Evangelist" in print advertisements, the ads also claimed he was born in a West Berlin bomb shelter, and had been rescued from a Siberian prison camp.[7] The powers he claimed included the abilities to heal the sick and foretell the future.[7]

Popoff married his wife Elizabeth in 1970 and the couple settled in Upland, California. He then began his television ministry that, by the early 1980s, was being broadcast nationally.[8] His miraculous "curing" of chronic and incurable medical conditions became a central attraction of his sermons. Popoff would tell attendees suffering from a variety of illnesses to "break free of the devil" by throwing their prescription pills onto the stage. Many would obey, tossing away bottles of digitalis, nitroglycerine, and other important maintenance medications.[9] Popoff would also "command" supplicants in wheelchairs to "rise and break free". They would stand and walk without assistance, to the joyous cheers of the faithful. Critics later documented that the recipients of these dramatic "cures" were fully ambulatory people who had been seated in wheelchairs by Popoff's assistants prior to broadcasts.[10]

In 1985 Popoff began soliciting donations for a program to provide Bibles to citizens of the Soviet Union by attaching them to helium-filled balloons and floating them into the country.[11] When skeptics asked him to prove that the money he had collected had in fact been spent on Bibles and balloons, Popoff staged a burglary at his own headquarters.[12] On subsequent broadcasts he tearfully begged for additional donations to help repair the damage.[13]

Investigation by James Randi[edit]

At the height of his popularity in the 1980s, Popoff would accurately announce home addresses and specific illnesses of audience members during his "healing sermons", a feat that he implied was due to divine revelation and "God-given ability".[14] In 1986, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry charged that Popoff was using electronic transmissions to receive his information; Popoff denied it, insisting that the messages were divinely revealed.[15] Skeptic groups distributed pamphlets explaining how Popoff's feats could be accomplished without any sort of divine intervention. Popoff branded his critics "tools of the devil".[8]

Popoff's methods were definitively exposed in 1986 by the magician and skeptic James Randi and his associate Steve Shaw, an illusionist known professionally as Banachek, with technical assistance from the crime scene analyst and electronics expert Alexander Jason.[16] With computerized radio scanners, Jason was able to demonstrate that Popoff's wife, Elizabeth, was using a wireless radio transmitter to broadcast information that she and her aides had culled from prayer request cards filled out by audience members. Popoff received the transmissions via an earpiece he was wearing and repeated the information to astonished audience members. Jason produced video segments interspersing the intercepted radio transmissions with Popoff's "miraculous" pronouncements.[1][8][16][17][18]

Randi also planted accomplices in Popoff's audiences, including a man dressed as a woman, at a meeting in Detroit in 1984, whom Popoff "cured" of uterine cancer.[9] Randi and Shaw recorded Elizabeth describing a woman to Popoff as "that big nigger in the back", and warning him, "Keep your hands off those tits ... I'm watching you." At another session, Elizabeth and her aides were heard laughing uncontrollably at the physical appearance of a man suffering from advanced testicular cancer.[19]

In May 1986, Randi presented one of Jason's videos on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.[20] Popoff initially denied Randi's accusations and accused NBC of "...[hiring] an actress to impersonate Mrs. Popoff on a doctored videotape". Eventually Popoff admitted the existence of the radio device, but claimed that Elizabeth only "occasionally" gave him "the name of a person who needs special prayers". He added that "almost everybody" knew about the wireless communication system.[21] His ministry's viewer ratings and donations declined significantly after the Carson airing, and in September 1987 he declared bankruptcy, listing more than 790 unpaid creditors. Popoff's attorney, William Simon, "attributed the collapse of his ministry to financial mismanagement more than to disclosures about Popoff."[22] Jason's video footage was also aired on the NOVA episode "Secrets of the Psychics" in 1991. The episode was released on video as part of a lesson in critical thinking.[23]

A former associate of Popoff from 1965 to 1990 said, "When you're praying for the sick, it's through the Holy Spirit, and there's some times that it works freely, and then there are other times when the Spirit's just not there." He went on to say that on the days it didn't show, you still had to pay for the auditorium so you needed to help the Holy Spirit along.[1]

Resurgence[edit]

In 1998, The Washington Post reported that Popoff was making a comeback, seeking to jump-start his ministry by repackaging himself for an African-American audience, buying time on the Black Entertainment Television network. Popoff, along with Don Stewart and Robert Tilton, received "criticism from those who say that preachers with a long trail of disillusioned followers have no place on a network that holds itself out as a model of entrepreneurship for the black community".[24]

A February 2007 Inside Edition segment reported that Popoff's new infomercials depict him "healing the sick" in a manner identical to his methods prior to James Randi's exposé. Victims were interviewed, including a married couple who charged that Popoff had taken "thousands of dollars" from them. Popoff refused to comment. "Flim flam is his profession," Randi explained to reporter Matt Meaghan. "That's what he does best. He's very good at it, and naturally he's going to go back to it."[25] In May 2007, ABC's 20/20 focused on Popoff's comeback and explored the lives of a few people who felt cheated.[26] Various other media outlets have run similar stories.[27][28][29][30] In July 2008, a Nanaimo, British Columbia resident was reimbursed by Popoff after she went public with her concerns over his fundraising tactics.[31]

In 2008, the UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom issued strong warnings to broadcasters for transmitting Popoff's material, which the regulator felt promoted his products "in such a way as to target potential susceptible and vulnerable viewers". These programs included offers of free "Miracle Manna" that allegedly provided health and financial miracles. In 2009, Popoff began running advertisements in UK periodicals offering a free cross containing "blessed water" and "holy sand". The water, he claimed, was drawn from a spring near Chernobyl (site of the 1986 nuclear reactor disaster). Animals and humans drinking from the spring were purportedly spared radiation sickness. Responders to the ad received a small wooden cross bearing the inscription "Jerusalem" and a solicitation for donations, followed by numerous additional solicitation letters.[32]

Popoff was designated by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) as one of its recipients of the 2011 Pigasus Award for fraudulent practices, along with Mehmet Oz (from The Dr. Oz Show) and CVS Pharmacy.[33] "Debt cancellation is part of God's plan", according to Popoff, who teaches that God will respond to prayer and seed-faith by providing financial blessing. Credit.com wrote a blog post concerning Popoff's claims.[34]

In September 2015, Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society documented Popoff's latest promises of "fabulous extreme fortune" and "miracles" in exchange for donations to his organization. At a recent London gathering, GTS filmed Popoff "healing" a woman supposedly "wracked with pain", though Marshall and a colleague had previously seen her—in no obvious distress—handing out pens and questionnaires to audience members. Soon after the "healing", they watched her quietly leave the room.[35]

In the mid-2000s, Popoff began to offer "Miracle Spring Water" on late-night infomercials in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.[36] Respondents are promised miraculous protection from disease and disability, along with financial prosperity (which may include "divine money transfers directly into your account"), if they sleep with the water for one night before drinking it, then pray over the empty packet and send it back to Popoff—with a donation. Multiple solicitation letters follow, requesting more donations in exchange for miracles.[37]

Popoff also started referring to himself as a prophet.[2]

Popoff's operation had functioned as a religious nonprofit until 2006, when it merged with a small church in Farmers Branch, Texas called Word for the World, which operated out of a storefront. By being classified as a church, the operation no longer had to report annual income or salary to the IRS. When a reporter from GQ attempted to visit this church on a Sunday morning in late 2016, he found a deserted parking lot in an industrial park with no church sign visible on the outside.[1]

Because of Popoff's history of fraud and financial irregularities, his "People United For Christ" organization earned a "Did Not Disclose" rating with the Better Business Bureau, indicating its refusal to provide information that would enable BBB to determine whether the group adheres to its Standards for Charity Accountability.[38]

Popoff's longtime assistants Reeford and Pamela Sherrell also began a televised Texas-based ministry, with Reeford using the name Pastor Lee Sherrell. Like Popoff, they use the offer of a religious trinket (a free prayer cloth) to compile an address list. Once a follower requests the prayer cloth and inputs his or her address, letters asking for money are dispatched.[9]

Researcher and bioethics expert Fred M. Frohock cited Popoff as "one of many egregious instances of fake healing."[39] Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, founded in 1987 to research the claims of televangelists, said, "Most of these guys are fooled by their own theology", referring to other televangelists such as Joel Osteen and T. D. Jakes, but in the case of Popoff, "He's fundamentally evil, because he knows he's a con man", Anthony said.[40]

Financial details[edit]

Popoff was collecting almost $4 million per year in the late 1980s, according to Randi.[41] In 2003, his ministry received over $9.6 million, and in 2005, over $23 million. In that year, he and his wife were paid a combined salary of nearly $1 million, while two of his children received over $180,000 each.[42] Financial data is not available for Popoff's ministry since 2005 because Peter Popoff Ministries changed from a for-profit business to a religious organization in 2006, making it tax-exempt.[40] Popoff purchased a home in Bradbury, California, for $4.5 million in 2007.[43] He drives a Porsche and a Mercedes-Benz.[44]

In popular culture[edit]

The 1992 Steve Martin dramedy Leap of Faith was inspired by Popoff's fraudulent ministry, and demonstrated a number of the techniques Popoff and other televangelist scammers use to create the illusion of divine intervention.[45] A 2012 Broadway musical adaptation of the same title was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical.[17]

Popoff was also the inspiration for a character in the 2012 thriller film Red Lights, a psychic who uses information fed to him via a hidden earpiece to persuade the audience at his shows that he is receiving personal details psychically. The script includes Elizabeth Popoff's infamous line, "Hello Petey, can you hear me? If you can't, you're in trouble", almost verbatim.[46]

Publications[edit]

  • 3 Steps to Answered Prayer. Faith Messenger Publications (1981) ISBN 0-938544-10-1 (91 pages)
  • Calamities, Catastrophes, and Chaos. Faith Messenger Publications (1980) ISBN 0-938544-01-2
  • Demons At Your Doorstep. Faith Messenger Publications (May 1982) ISBN 0-938544-13-6 (50 pages)
  • Dreams: God's Language for Life More Abundantly. Publisher: People United For Christ (1989) ASIN B000NSMW2S (88 pages)
  • Forecasts for 1987. (1984) ASIN B000B8K0MY (33 page booklet)
  • God Has Promised You Divine Wealth
  • God's Abundant Blessings
  • Guaranteed Answered Prayer
  • Prosperity Thinking
  • Releasing the Power of the Holy Spirit in Your Life
  • Six Things Satan Uses to Rob You of God's Abundant Blessings. Faith Messenger Publications (April 1982) ISBN 0-938544-11-X (93 pages)

Broadcast[edit]

Broadcasters airing his TV program include: AMC, WITI, WNYW, WWOR-TV, The Word Network (US); VisionTV (Canada), and WGN-TV.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Peter Popoff, the Born-Again Scoundrel, GQ, Mark Oppenheimer, February 27, 2017.
  2. ^ a b "Peter Popoff". Government of Western Australia, Dept. of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, Consumer Protection. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  3. ^ Maag, Christopher (September 22, 2011). "Scam Everlasting: After 25 Years, Debunked Faith Healer Still Preaching Debt Relief Scam". Business Insider. New York, NY.
  4. ^ [1]. peterpopoff.org. Archived March 10, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ Wilcox, Bruce G.; Yang, Henry T. (Foreword). "The Annual Report of Private Giving for the Year Ending June 30, 2011" (PDF). University of California, Santa Barbara. Retrieved May 28, 2014.
  6. ^ "Hear Dr. George Popoff". Wilmington Morning News. Wilmington, DE. April 30, 1960 – via Newspapers.com. (Subscription required (help)).
  7. ^ a b c "Hear Dr. George Popoff", p. 4.
  8. ^ a b c Randi, James (1989). The Faith Healers. Prometheus Books. pp. 2, 147. ISBN 978-0-87975-535-5.
  9. ^ a b c Seckel, Al (1987). "GOD'S FREQUENCY IS 39.17 MHz: THE INVESTIGATION OF PETER POPOFF". University of Colorado at Boulder. Originally published in Science and the Paranormal.
  10. ^ Seckel, Al (1987). "God's Frequency is 39.17 MHz: The Investigation of Peter Popoff". Science and the Paranormal.
  11. ^ Johnston, David; Leonard, Jennifer (1985-01-20). "Tv Charities: Let The Giver Beware". Los Angeles Times.
  12. ^ Ajala-Immanuel, Sarah (2011). Fleece My Sheep?: The Unprecedented Tragedy of the Church in Bed with a Sinful World. Central Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England: AuthorHouse UK LTD. p. 92. ISBN 978-1-4567-7669-5.
  13. ^ "Peter Popoff - Scamming us again". Canadian Quackery Watch. HealthWatch. Archived March, 2016.
  14. ^ [full citation needed]Friedman, Jason (2006-05-08). "Reverend Rip-Off". WDAF Fox 4 News.
  15. ^ "TV EVANGELIST DENIES USE OF RADIO IN HEALING SERVICE". Philadelphia Inquirer. July 15, 1986. Retrieved 2009-02-19.
  16. ^ a b Randi, James (February 22, 2008). "NEW FOR TAM6!". James Randi Educational Foundation.
  17. ^ a b Daniel, Danica (April 24, 2012). "Are You Ready For a Miracle? How Leap of Faith Jumped From the Movie Screen to Broadway". Broadway.com.
  18. ^ Blackmore, Susan J. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. p. 193.
  19. ^ James Randi on Peter Popoff and Skepticism on YouTube.
  20. ^ Randi (1989), p. 142.
  21. ^ Randi (1989), p. 143.
  22. ^ Dart, John (September 26, 1987). "Evangelist Popoff Off Air, Files Bankruptcy Petitions". Los Angeles Times.
  23. ^ NOVA Teachers (19 October 1993). "Secrets of the Psychics. Program Overview". PBS.
  24. ^ "White Preachers Born Again on Black Network; TV Evangelists Seek to Resurrect Ministries". The Washington Post. September 3, 1998. Retrieved September 4, 2011.
  25. ^ "A Profitable Prophet". Inside Edition. February 27, 2007. Archived from the original on September 10, 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
  26. ^ Avila, Jim (11 May 2007). "Selling Salvation?". 20/20. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
  27. ^ "Miracle Water: Ripoff or For Real Part II". KIDK. November 5, 2007. Archived from the original on September 15, 2008. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  28. ^ "Prophet or profit?". KOMO-TV. October 9, 2007. Archived from the original on October 12, 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  29. ^ "Prophet or profit? Televangelist makes comeback". KATU. October 10, 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  30. ^ Sedensky, Matt (21 July 2007). "Abracadabra! The fraud is exposed". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  31. ^ Bellaart, Darrell (July 21, 2007). "Televangelist gives back woman's cash: Nanaimo resident was concerned about Peter Popoff's fundraising methods". Nanaimo Daily News. Archived from the original on 2012-11-10. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  32. ^ "Broadcast Bulletin Issue number 117" Archived July 1, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.. Ofcom. September 15, 2008. Retrieved May 28, 2014.
  33. ^ Randi, James (2011). "The 5 Worst Promoters of Nonsense". James Randi Educational Foundation. Retrieved May 28,2 014.
  34. ^ Maag, Christopher (21 September 2011). "Scam Everlasting: After 25 Years, Debunked Faith Healer Still Preaching Debt Relief Scam". Retrieved 2011-09-23.
  35. ^ Andrew Penman (24 September 2015). "Two very different charlatans both selling the divine right to get rich quick". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 24 September 2015.
  36. ^ "Peter Popoff Worldwide TV Schedule". Peter Popoff Ministries. Archived from the original on 2008-04-05. Retrieved 2008-04-13.
  37. ^ Controversial Televangelist Peter Popoff Hawks 'Miracle Water'. Christian Post archive. Retrieved February 12, 2015.
  38. ^ People United for Christ, Give.org
  39. ^ Frohock, Fred M. (2000). Lives of the Psychics: The Shared Worlds of Science and Mysticism. University of Chicago Press. pp. 76–77.
  40. ^ a b Maag, Christopher (22 September 2011). "Scam Everlasting: After 25 Years, Debunked Faith Healer Still Preaching Debt Relief Scam". Business Insider. Retrieved 15 August 2013.
  41. ^ "Secrets of the Psychics". NOVA. October 19, 1993. Retrieved 7 May 2013.
  42. ^ "Selling Salvation?". ABC News. May 11, 2007. Retrieved 2011-04-20.
  43. ^ "430 Long Canyon Road, Bradbury, CA 91010". BlockShopper. Retrieved May 28, 2014.
  44. ^ Avila, Jim (May 11, 2007). "Selling Salvation?". ABC News.
  45. ^ Ungoad-Thomas, Jon; Stoneman, Justin (August 30, 2015). "Debt-busting 'con' comes to Britain". The Sunday Times. Retrieved June 14, 2016.
  46. ^ French, Chris (2012-06-15). "How true to life are the psychics and psychologists in Red Lights?". The Guardian.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Official and critical