Raptured pet owners insurance a hoax

Follow-up stories can be hard to come by, since people’s attention seems to fade as the next hot topic comes along. As Twitter streams new trending topics, stories seem to become old news quicker than ever.

A few months ago, I noted how NPR aired a follow-up report on a man who was selling pet insurance for those who thought they might be raptured back in May (remember Harold Camping?). It was a story perfect for the Internet, one that could easily be chuckled at and shared, but it seems like it was too good to be true. Back in December, NPR followed up with Bart Centre, reporting that he had made least $35,000 by taking on 260 clients. At least, that’s what Centre claimed.

Religion News Service came out with a story yesterday reporting that the man’s story was an elaborate hoax, one that many outlets (including RNS) reported.

Bart Centre, who lives in New Hampshire, came clean after the state Insurance Department delivered a subpoena because he appeared to be engaged in “unauthorized business of insurance” through his Eternal Earth-Bound Pets business.
“Eternal Earth-Bound Pets employs no paid rescuers,” Bart Centre wrote in a blog post on March 16. “It has no clients. It has never issued a service certificate. It has accepted no service contract applications nor received any payments — not a single dollar — in the almost three years of its existence.”
Centre’s business was reported widely by Religion News Service, NPR, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, CBS News, the BBC, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Huffington Post and other media outlets in the past year.

Centre had even told RNS recently that he was disappointed by Camping’s recent decision not to make future predictions, claiming it would be bad for business.

Total clientele rose to 245 by May 21. With the world still spinning after Camping’s original prophecy failed to materialize, Centre’s business only inched up to 267.

“It really died off really quickly after May,” Centre said.

He’s also had to handle buyer’s remorse. Six customers who signed up just weeks before Camping’s failed doomsday asked for their money back. Centre declined, pointing to the contract.

Centre and his co-owner, a Minnesota police officer, share the income from their fees with the 48 other people they’ve deemed to be suitable “rescuers.” Most, he said, are “atheists who are happy to give people peace of mind.”

I wonder if he apologized to the reporter because he obviously was working from an elaborate imagination. It must have been pretty annoying to write the retraction story, but it’s also part of the follow-up process. Here’s more from the updated story.

Richard McCaffrey, the compliance and enforcement counsel who delivered the subpoena, said the subpoena could be withdrawn but the investigation is continuing because of what he considers Centre’s contradictory remarks.
“He was either lying to the newspapers or he’s lying now,” said McCaffrey.
McCaffrey noted the website for Eternal Earth-bound Pets — which includes advertisements about Centre’s two “Atheist Camel” books — remains operational.
Centre said just two Rapture believers — rather than his previously claimed 267 clients — contacted him to sign up for his service. He said he told them he didn’t have a rescuer close enough to their area to make a commitment.

Back in December, I suggested that the NPR story could have offered at least one more voice in the story. “Simply reporting on this one particular business with no other voices seems to legitimize it in some way,” I said. Sure, adding a second voice would not have fixed the problem that the story was wrong to begin with, but it seems like it would have offered some sort of “okay, but” in the piece.

On another note, I often wonder whether editors go back to the original story on their websites and link to the updated one at the top. The story isn’t a correction in the traditional sense, but it is an important update. If you’re searching the web and you come across the earlier versions from last May or whatever, you might not come across the updated report. This is a personal pet peeve that publications aren’t trying to be a bit more like Wikipedia in letting their stories evolve instead of pretending like once they’re published, they’re finished. Blogs do a better job of adding an update at the bottom, but traditional media outlets seem to still be struggling with the concept.

Puppy image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    Of course, if this really is a hoax, then by now the whole thing has reached urban legend proportions. Thanks for being the one site that actually keeps up on this sort of thing.

    By the way, I’m curious of something. Are you guys aware of any reporter who’s ever done any investigative journalism on the Westboro Baptist Church? Primarily seeing if they’re being funded from any sources, and if so, how much and from who?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Journalism question – How much should reporters check on reported numbers, or do background checks? And under what circumstances?

    From a GetReligion standpoint, for example, if doing a story about a new pastor or priest in the area, how much background check on their previous postings would be appropriate?

  • Jason

    I think the Eternal Earthbound Pets folks are lying now or have been partly lying the whole time. I have corresponded with them (humorously). My bet–he does have clients and has taken money, but does not have employees or contracted “sitters.” I suspect that paying clients will soon come out of the woodwork and demand compensation for the “hoax.”

    Hijacking this thread for something complete off topic, but he started it: The Topeka Capitol Journal has done a great deal of extensive reporting on Westboro and there is a movie (aired on showtime) about them. Fred Phelps was a Lawyer and some of his kids–most notably Shirley–are lawyers, and successful ones. Additionally, the church does have some support across the country, so some money comes in that way.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Someone at NPR must have been reading your post, because they have updated the original story with a comment at the top, though they don’t have a link to any of the new stories about the hoax.

    Ray – regarding fact checking on the numbers, the RNS story about the hoax points to an easy-to-check resource for a lot of industries: public records and registrations. Most states and cities regulate a lot of industries and require permits for various types of businesses, especially “trust-based” businesses like insurance. It wouldn’t have taken too long to call up the NH Dept of Insurance and find out if the guy was registered.

  • Jerry

    The problem with lying is that who knows what’s a lie and what is not a lie as Jason points out. They might be lying about not having taken any money. It’s as true today as it’s ever been: “Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive!”

  • Sadie

    I’d bet anything this whole thing was initially inspired by a post on Fred Clark’s blog back in 2008:

    “So please, if you’re a Real True Christian and you know that Jesus is going to rapture you any day now, please don’t own pets. Or, if you must own them, please talk to one of your evil, reprobate neighbors — some atheist or Jew or Episcopalian who lives nearby — and arrange to have them come and care for your pets after the Rapture.”

  • Bart

    Jason…you are mistaken. There is no wood work for people to come out of. Disappointing, hmmm?

    As far as the media’s role in checking/vetting stories:
    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” carl sagan said. This was an extraordinary business offering. What could the media have done in 1/2 an hour..if they wanted to?

    - try submitting a pet rescue application. Then try paying for the service. If the app is rejected/ and the paypal payment can’t be processed it would be a major red flag…no?

    - try checking out if they have a business license with the State of NH. They can’t operate a business without one. NO business license?? Ooops..red flag.

    - try challenging the website owner with United States V Ballard, Supreme Court decision 1944 , the ruling would make this offer by a non-believer to a believer illegal. OOOps!

    The media was a willing partner to this spoof. They wanted it to be true; they loved the rapture hysteria, they reliquished their journalistic imperitive to get the story. And now they bemoan the fact they were bamboozled? Please.