When the Flock Gets Fleeced
by Lawrence Downing
“You can’t lose. They have a gold mine in South America that will produce enough gold to cover any money investors put in. It’s a sure fire deal.” With these words, spoken to me by a close relative, I was introduced to yet another get-rich-scheme foisted on gullible and trusting Adventists. The principals in the venture, my relative explained, were all Adventists. One of them, a well-known musician on the camp meeting circuit, I had known since childhood. Another, an Adventist college administrator, had been my relative’s long-time friend. As the investment opportunity unfolded I asked why, if there was a gold mine, they needed our money. The clincher: they want their friends to benefit from this investment. They know when we make money the Lord’s work will benefit. I did not invest. My relative and all others who invested lost everything and the promoters went to prison for fraud. There was no gold mine.
The person who had provided special music the previous Sabbath called me with this question: “Why did you have (and he gave the name) offer prayer last Sabbath? Do you know he has taken my father and others in your congregation for hundreds of thousands of dollars?” The question caught me off guard. I did not know. I had known the individual some years before but had not seen him for more than 20 years. I explained I had no idea he was into investments.
The son gave further details. The family had attempted to discover where the money had gone but the person said he did not really know. Neither he nor the father had any records, except for canceled checks. I checked the story the son told and found it to be true. Many other Adventists had been taken in by this super pious swindler. He had a lot going for him. He was a recognized leader in the Prayer Warrior groups. He conducted prayer seminars. He could pray you under the rug and bathe his investment pitches in spiritual jargon. He told his investors he was using his God-given gifts to create wealth so he could further God’s work and urged them to follow his example. The ‘investors’ lost all of their money. He to this point has avoided the legal system. His investors are reluctant to file charges. They still have hope he may yet come through.
These examples of affinity fraud can be multiplied over and over. A smooth talker who knows the vocabulary and understands human greed, gullibility and their victims, can lead even the most astute down the primrose path and Adventist are not the only ones to walk this calamitous journey.
“Fleecing the Faithful — Again” is an article in the June 2011 Christianity Today (p. 54). Kristian Westergard, a well respected churchman, managed to entice fellow believers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Westergard developed close ties with people who operated well-known and respected Christian organizations. These individuals, while not promoting Westergard’s investment schemes, provided him credibility. The investors do not expect to recover their funds.
Those who study affinity fraud report that difficult economic times, like now grips America, are a boon to unscrupulous investment promoters. People become desperate and grasp toward even the most improbable investment schemes in hope of a payoff. When it is a church member who offers the ‘can’t miss deal,’ the risk of being taken for a ride increases. Keep your ears open. Listen for statements couched in religious jargon, “I’ve felt the Lord leading.” “I really feel called to share this with God’s people.” “Think of the blessings this investment can be to the Lord’s work.” “We know we’re in the last times, it is vital that we have funds to further the Work.” When you hear these phrases, get out your running shoes and get those feet going away as fast as you can! Put up your beware flag when the person assures you of a steady return, double that beware notice if the promised return is above ordinary, and ordinary returns in today’s market are in the range of 1.5 % to 3 %. An assurance of 10% or more is a clue to put on those running shoes!
Demand full financial disclosure, including an audited statement and a written contract that you can show to an attorney for review.
If you do invest, do not put in any more money than you are willing or able to lose and do not tap your retirement funds to invest in a ‘can’t lose’ investment scheme. People who pull out their retirement nest egg and put it into some investment project court economic calamity. Think Bernie Madoff — itself an example of affinity fraud — if you need documentation. To those who are inclined to seek shady investment opportunities, may I interest you in a sure fire chance to double your…on second thought, under the mattress may not be such a bad idea after all.