BALOG COLUMN: Walterboro winery owners learn from pain of lost trust
Ann and Ralph Massenburg like to stay busy.
The semi-retired Folly Beach couple, ages 64 and nearly 67, just opened a winery and vineyard near Walterboro. They also own North Main Self Storage and Froggy's Car Wash in Summerville and a handful of self-serve ice vending machines.
The fact that they could start a new business after what they've been through is remarkable.
For four years, they claim, an employee found ways to take money from them. Berkeley County sheriff's deputies arrested that person in the fall on a charge of breach of trust with fraudulent intent of $10,000 or more, Sgt. Kevin Murphy said. The case is pending with the solicitor's office. And like all suspects, this person is presumed innocent.
Nobody likes to admit they were taken advantage of, but the Massenburgs don't want other people to go through what they've gone through.
Too much freedom
As Ann Massenburg tells it, they gave this person permission to use a company credit card and access to their business bank accounts.
“They just let her ride on an honest/trust factor — only to discover that things weren't going that way,” Murphy said.
Massenburg estimates their loss at $100,000.
“My husband treated her family like his family,” she said, even paying the employee bonuses.
“For her to do that to us, it just hurts. It really, really hurts.”
The car wash and the ice machines are cash businesses, and the employee's responsibilities included collecting, counting and depositing the money from those businesses.
Massenburg said she found it strange that income from one machine was averaging $300 a week, but after the employee left, it suddenly climbed to $1,000 or more a week.
They have changed how they do business.
“We do have employees, but my husband and I handle the money,” Massenburg said. “We are definitely working much harder.”
As Massenburg says, during this time, “we were sweatin' it,” wondering why they weren't more profitable.
“That's what we want is our money back — it would make a big difference in our pockets, in our businesses,” she said.
Time for a change
One problem, Sgt. Murphy said, is that there's no procedure for seizing and freezing assets in these types of fraud cases the way there is in a federal case. So there's no guarantee they'll get back what was taken from them. Sounds like a problem the state Legislature could tackle.
Now, the Massenburgs have a new business, too, but that doesn't make what happened any less painful or illegal.
“Is it OK to steal from people who have money?” Murphy asked rhetorically. “I feel for them as same as I would for anybody who had money stolen from them.”
The Massenburgs urge business owners to do background and reference checks. “People with small businesses, they just have to be really careful when they hire employees,” she said.
And hope the state eventually offers people like them some additional protection in these worst case-scenarios.
Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.