I found this New Yorker article fascinating because it details one of the dangers involved in the overly credulous thinking that Christianity promotes in its adherents. Namely that if you’re willing to buy into the idea of an invisible sky daddy on the basis of faith alone then you’re pretty much a prime candidate for every scammer and conman out there.
John W. Worley is a 62 year old Christian psychotherapist, ordained minister, decorated Vietnam veteran, former president of his high school class, and grandfather who is by all accounts a very intelligent man who has enjoyed relatively decent success in his lifetime. Yet by the time May of 2005 rolled around he was on trial for bank fraud, money laundering, and possession of counterfeit checks after having gotten wrapped up in his own greed and the false hopes promised by a classic Nigerian scam runner who first contacted him in June of 2001. It all started with a simple email:
Worley scrolled through his in-box and opened an e-mail, addressed to “CEO/Owner.” The writer said that his name was Captain Joshua Mbote, and he offered an awkwardly phrased proposition: “With regards to your trustworthiness and reliability, I decided to seek your assistance in transferring some money out of South Africa into your country, for onward dispatch and investment.” Mbote explained that he had been chief of security for the Congolese President Laurent Kabila, who had secretly sent him to South Africa to buy weapons for a force of élite bodyguards. But Kabila had been assassinated before Mbote could complete the mission. “I quickly decided to stop all negotiations and divert the funds to my personal use, as it was a golden opportunity, and I could not return to my country due to my loyalty to the government of Laurent Kabila,” Mbote wrote. Now Mbote had fifty-five million American dollars, in cash, and he needed a discreet partner with an overseas bank account. That partner, of course, would be richly rewarded.
I’ve gotten quite literally thousands of these emails over the years. Details vary, but the general pitch is always the same: “I represent a person of some importance in a foreign land who has money tied up by circumstances beyond my control. I am in need of the help of an upstanding and trustworthy person such as yourself to transfer the money out of the country and I will give you some of it in exchange for your help.” As a skeptic I live by a very simple piece of advice that is so common it’s long become a cliché: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to see the practicality of that cliché or to apply it to everyday life and Worley is hardly a stupid man:
Worley, who had spent his adult life advocating self-knowledge and introspection, seemed particularly unlikely to be fooled. He had developed a psychological profiling tool designed to reveal a person’s “unique needs, desires and probable behavioral responses.” He promised users of the test, “The individual’s understanding of self will be greatly enhanced, increasing the potential for a fulfilled and balanced life.” And Worley was vigilant against temptation. Two weeks before the e-mail arrived, he had been the keynote speaker at his eldest granddaughter’s graduation from the First Assembly Christian Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts. He cautioned the students about Satan, telling them, “He’s going to be trying to destroy you every inch of the way.”
Still, Worley, faced with an e-mail that would, according to federal authorities, eventually lead him to join a gang of Nigerian criminals seeking to defraud U.S. banks, didn’t hesitate. A few minutes after receiving Mbote’s entreaty, he replied, “I can help and I am interested.”
You have to wonder how such an intelligent man could be so easily taken in? The answer is he was done in by his Christian faith which passively undermined his ability to think critically about what he was getting involved in and actively undermined it once he made the mistake of revealing his faith to the conmen that were about to ruin his life. Worley had enough sense to ask a very reasonable question in that first fateful reply:
His only question was how Mbote had found him, and he seemed satisfied with the explanation: that the South African Department of Home Affairs had supplied his name. When Worley attributed this improbable event to God’s will, Mbote elaborated on the story to say that Worley’s name was one of ten that he had been given, and that it had been pulled from a hat after much prayer by someone named Pastor Mark.
Take note of two very important aspects of the exchange above: First, Worley rationalized away the improbability of the situation with his belief that God must have directly intervened to bring about these events. When you spend a lifetime telling yourself that every bit of good luck you’ve had is an example of God directly intervening in your affairs for your benefit it becomes very easy to rationalize away anything that seems like it could potentially be another windfall from God no matter how improbable it is. Secondly, note how the conman immediately seizes on this revelation from Worley to expand his story to actually play up the improbability of it happening and make it seem even more like divine providence in action by claiming his name was pulled randomly from a hat by a Pastor. What are the odds of that? Surely it was God’s influence that brought this about! From there it’s only a small logical leap to conclude that if God is working to put these events in motion then there must be nothing wrong with going along with it.
As I said, though, Worley wasn’t a stupid man by any stretch of the imagination and he was skeptical enough to realize he might be running a risk to his reputation and he initially refused to fund the operation as had been requested, but the conman had a answer for that:
No problem, Mbote answered; “investors” would provide up to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for airfare and other expenses needed to move the money to the United States, while Worley would act as middleman and curator of the funds.
As promised, in late August, 2001, Worley received a check for forty-seven thousand five hundred dollars, purportedly from one such investor. It was from an account belonging to the Syms Corporation, the discount-clothing chain whose slogan is “An Educated Consumer Is Our Best Customer.” Worley was wary. He called the Fleet Bank in Portland, Maine, where the check had been drawn. The bank told him it was an altered duplicate of a check that Syms had paid to the Maryland office of an international luggage manufacturer.
You would think that would be the end of this story. You could even understand his participating in it up to this point as who doesn’t want to help out someone in trouble and make a little cash along the way? You’d think that, having discovered the fraud, Worley would realize what was going on and put an end to it. And you’d be right, kinda:
After the Syms check proved false and Mbote failed to send a replacement, Worley told him that their partnership was over. A few days later, though, he began receiving e-mails from someone claiming to be Mohammed Abacha, the eldest surviving son of Nigeria’s late dictator General Sani Abacha, who reputedly stole billions from the Nigerian treasury. Mohammed Abacha told Worley that Joshua Mbote had been operating surreptitiously on the Abacha family’s behalf, but had bungled so badly that Abacha decided to step forward. He told Worley that the story about buying weapons had been a ruse to protect the Abacha family and their money, which, he said, was actually hidden in Ghana. Soon Worley was put in touch with someone claiming to be the General’s widow, Maryam Abacha. In a torrent of phone calls and e-mails, she appealed to Worley. “I learned you wanted to hear from me,” she wrote. “Here I am. Help me.” In his e-mails, Worley seemed invigorated by this new scenario; he apparently believed that he was on the verge of becoming rich while rescuing a woman in distress.
Here we again see how the teachings of his faith are working to undermine Worley’s thinking. The conman has switched gears now and is re-crafting his story in a direct attack on Worley’s Christian belief system. The first email that started this whole thing had been purely an appeal to Worley’s greed. Now he was being hit with an appeal to his sense of helping others in distress along with his greed. This gave Worley all he needed to re-rationalize his participation. This prompted him to actually hire an attorney trained in international tax planning at a cost of several thousand dollars and the attorney tried to warn him that he was getting involved in something that might not be legit. His wife also tried to discourage from participating further:
Worley dismissed these warnings; now that he had committed money to the partnership, he had a vested interest. By the end of 2001, he was telling the Abachas that he had investigated ways to ship the cash secretly and had searched a half-dozen countries for a bank that would accept a huge deposit without alerting authorities. He reassured them that they had chosen the right partner, and begged for patience: “I am a smart man and very cautious and do not want anything to go wrong.” He settled on the Bermuda-based Bank of Butterfield, and in late January, 2002, he told Mrs. Abacha that he had spent forty-three hundred dollars to open an account there. “There will be no trail back to the U.S. and no tax to be paid,” he wrote.
From there things just spiraled further out of control. Worley’s partners soon convinced him to wire $8,000 to them to cover bank fees, he allowed them to file false documentation claiming he was owed $45 million by the Nigerian government, he violated his own profession’s ethics rules by asking one of his patients to loan him $15,000 for his “business project” which he later repaid by taking out a loan on his credit card. All the while he kept noticing small clues that things weren’t what they seemed to be—the spelling of names kept changing prompting him to remark in one reply “I would think that everyone would know how to spell their own real name. Obviously, someone does not.”—that he decides to ignore.
One is left to wonder why he’d ignore such an obvious sign of subterfuge let alone the fact that this process had been dragging on for months and he didn’t seem to be any closer to collecting the money he was promised. Certainly part of it was greed spurred on by the fact that he had invested considerable amounts of his own and other people’s money into the scheme, but I’d argue that there was also the influence of his belief system at work.
The Christian faith teaches you that all the trials and tribulations you’ll endure on Earth will be rewarded to a degree beyond your ability to imagine once you make it to Heaven for little more than accepting Jesus Christ into your heart. That’s a small price to pay for such huge rewards and when things get tough Christians often console each other by reminding them that it’ll all be worthwhile once they cross through those pearly gates. This form of wishful thinking have kept quite a few of the faithful believing for over 2,000 years now because it’s incredibly attractive.
You can see the same line of reasoning being used skillfully by the conman that duped Worley over the years. If you’ve ever taken a look at some of the emails that are sent back and forth during these exchanges you’ll note that there’s a lot of language along the lines of, “I realize you are frustrated at the delays and the expense of the bribes we need to bring these affairs to a conclusion, but I assure you that you will soon be enjoying the benefits of the millions of dollars we are just days away from releasing into your hands.” Yes, you’re suffering now, but just think of that glorious future when all this is done and you have your money! Happy days indeed!
If you’re able to swallow the Christian version of think-how-happy-you’ll-be-someday then swallowing the conman’s version is no problem, especially after you’ve already invested a lot of money into it.
When he still seemed no closer to receiving the payment he’d been promised, he made a bid for sympathy, falsely telling his partners that he had been given a diagnosis of cancer. That didn’t work, so he told them that he was abandoning the project: “To date, I have lost nearly fifty thousand dollars chasing a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end of it. I cannot go any further. It will take me two years to recover from this, and I will probably be dead by then.” Mrs. Abacha’s reassurances wrung thirteen thousand dollars more from Worley, but in April, 2002, he swore he was through, writing, “I must stop this financial torment and anguish and pray that God forgives me for my pursuit of money, simply put, greed.”
Again it would seem that Worley’s story has come to an end as he seems to realize he’s never going to see the money and that he’s allowing his own greed to get the better of him. And, for awhile, that was true…
For five months, Worley didn’t correspond with the Nigerians. Then, in September, 2002, a fax arrived from someone calling herself Mercy Nduka, who claimed to be a confidential secretary at the Central Bank of Nigeria. Nduka told Worley that the Aviation Ministry funds were still waiting for him, and that she was secretly working with the Abacha family. She said that they needed five hundred thousand dollars to bribe five Nigerian bank officials who had the power to release the forty-five million; plus, she said, they needed another eighty-five thousand to cover fees. Worley refused to send more money, so Nduka and her boss, Usman Bello, said that they would borrow it from investors. Worley would pass along the investors’ money and then receive the fortune on behalf of the Abachas, with shares going to him, Nduka, and Bello for their services.
Worley is rightly skeptical at first, but a few phone calls from people claiming to be investors once again gives him an excuse to rationalize things away and when a check from one of them arrives he makes a fateful decision:
In late November, 2002, Worley received a check for ninety-five thousand dollars, drawn on an account of the Robert Plan Corporation, a Long Island-based insurance company. Without verifying it, as he had done with the Syms check, he deposited it at a branch of Fleet Bank. In fact, the check was fraudulent, but a novice employee at the insurance company approved Fleet’s payment inquiry. When the money appeared in Worley’s account, Nduka told him to wire eighty-five thousand dollars to a bank in Latvia, which he did. He wired another thirty-eight hundred dollars when Bello said that he needed to buy a Rolex watch to bribe a bank official.
Why didn’t Worley verify the check like he’d done previously? It was a very smart and prudent move in the past that had served him well for at least a little while, so why didn’t he do it this time? For the same reason a lot of Christians don’t examine their own beliefs too closely: Fear that their doubts will turn out to be correct. Worley had invested so much money and time and effort into his project by this point that his desire to believe it was real was beyond desperate. The same is often true for many Christians that get seriously wrapped up in their beliefs that they invest countless hours and money to it, they need it to be real because of the investment they’ve put into it.
When the check actually cleared it was as if God himself had turned water into wine right in front of his eyes and paved the way for him to deposit more fraudulent checks over the coming months the money from which he dispersed back out at the conman’s request without so much as batting an eyelash about it.
Finally, Nduka told him what he longed to hear: “All is set for the final release of your fund.”
It’s an interesting ironic twist that on the same day Worley received that long awaited bit of good news the whole house of cards he had helped build started to come crashing down around him:
That day, the president of the Farmers & Merchants Bank learned that the check Marcia Cartwright had deposited a month earlier had been returned as fraudulent. Bank officials called federal and state authorities, and Citizens Bank, where Worley had deposited Cartwright’s cashier’s check, was also notified. An investigator for Citizens, a former police lieutenant named Michael Raymond, told Worley what had happened and said that he was investigating potentially fraudulent activity. Worley sent frantic e-mails and made repeated calls to Nigeria, begging for a replacement check. Nduka answered with bad news: Bello had been attacked by robbers and was comatose. But, she wrote, “I have reached an agreement with them for your fund to be released as planned on Friday.” All she needed was a thousand dollars to bribe another telex operator.
Worley seemed on the verge of panicking. “If you are my friend, then make it happen tomorrow,” he pleaded. “Why are you badgering me with this $1,000? I have gone as far as I will go with this. I am desperate and have nothing else to say at this time. I am emotionally, spiritually, and financially drained.”
Now see how skillfully the conman makes use of Worley’s belief system once more:
Nduka answered humbly, calling herself “an ordinary woman” who struggled on four hundred dollars a month. Worley responded that Nduka had “touched my heart.” He wired the thousand dollars on January 30, 2003.
Amazing, isn’t it? How a simple appeal can remove all doubts when your target wants to, no, needs to believe so much.
When it became clear that the other checks were also fraudulent and he was in some serious trouble Worley became seriously pissed off:
“I hate being taken advantage of by you evil bastards,” he wrote to Nduka. “This is all lies?” He went on, “Your day will come that you will be judged by God, and so will I. And I am ashamed, and shamed, and an embarrassment to my family, who are so precious and Godly people. What a terrible model of a Christian that I am. Thoughts of suicide are filling my mind, and I am full of rage at you despicable people. I hate living right now, and I want to die. My whole life is falling apart, my family, my ministry, my reputation and all that I have worked for all my life. Dear God, help me. I am so frightened.”
One of Worley’s biggest mistakes was not verifying the other checks when they arrived because the law states that if you deliberately pass a fraudulent check you can face felony charges:
In May, 2005, Worley went on trial in U.S. District Court in Boston on charges of bank fraud, money laundering, and possession of counterfeit checks. Worley’s overseas correspondents, whose real identities he never knew, disappeared, and were never located or charged. With them went more than forty thousand dollars of Worley’s money and nearly six hundred thousand dollars from the checks. Including credit-card interest, money-wiring fees, long-distance telephone charges, and the tax lawyer’s bills, Worley’s losses may have been closer to eighty thousand dollars.
Let’s see that’s $640,000 over the course of two years or so. Not a bad haul for making a few phone calls, sending a few faxes, and lots of emails. The only hope Worley has that the conmen will someday face justice lies in his belief that God is real and will someday judge them, but it’s hard to see how that’s any real comfort considering the possibility that said men could be Christian themselves or merely need to become such to gain entrance to the same Heaven Worley believes he’ll end up in.
At the trial the prosecuting attorney portrayed Worley as having engaged in “willful blindness” in pursuit of his greed:
Pellegrini said that Worley’s claims of innocence were undermined by consistent bad conduct—lying to his wife, borrowing from a patient, plotting to avoid taxes, posing as an aviation contractor, claiming to have cancer, and agreeing to bribe Nigerian bank officials. She was unsparing during her cross-examination. “So you don’t have any integrity either, do you, Dr. Worley?” she asked. He answered, “No, I don’t.”
His defense lawyer tried to portray Worley as a victim of his own credulity:
Worley’s lawyer, a former prosecutor named Thomas Hoopes, cast him as a childlike man who was tricked by sophisticated con artists into a check-cashing scheme.
He urged the jury to focus on the final thousand dollars that Worley had sent after he knew an investigation was under way—this was evidence, he said, of Worley’s gullibility.
Mostly, Hoopes urged the jury to view Worley’s acts as foolish, not criminal. Hoopes emphasized that Worley had lost heavily in the scam. “It’s not willful blindness,” Hoopes said. “It is blind trust.”
Blind trust is praised as a virtue worthy of striving for in the Bible. Christians are encourage to have a childlike faith that God is real and his promises true. In short, Christianity promotes credulity in its followers.
The trial took six days, and the jury found Worley guilty on all counts. On February 15th, Worley, now sixty-two, returned to the federal courthouse at the edge of Boston Harbor to face sentencing. Accompanied by more than three dozen family members and friends, he arrived wearing a charcoal suit with a support-the-troops pin on the lapel. U.S. District Judge George O’Toole, Jr., acknowledging the “ordeal” that Worley had been through, said that he was nevertheless bound by the jury’s finding. He sentenced Worley to two years in prison, plus restitution of nearly six hundred thousand dollars, and gave him five weeks to turn himself in. Outside the courtroom, Barbara Worley, a stout woman with blond hair, said they would appeal. (They eventually decided not to.) “My husband is the victim here,” she said. “It’s an atrocity.”
I agree with Mrs. Worley. Her husband is indeed a victim. Not only of a scam by conartists, but by his religious beliefs as well. The proof is in the stunning epilogue to this sordid tale when the reporter goes to visit Worley at his home a week after the trial:
“The communications that I had with those people were so convincing that I really believed that they were real, they were true,” he said. “I would question them and they would come back with a response that was adequate to cover my concerns each and every time.” Despite everything, he insisted that he still believed he had been dealing with the real Maryam and Mohammed Abacha. “I think they were legitimately trying to use me and my resources to get their funds out of Nigeria into a safe place where they could have access to them,” he said. Worley wasn’t sure whom to blame for the bad checks, though Nduka was suspect. “Somehow there was a buyoff, a payoff, or something that went on there, and then it got switched to the point where I was then dealing with fraudsters,” he said.
When I asked Worley what he wished he had done differently, he didn’t answer directly. Instead, he spoke about hoping that the Abachas would get back in touch with him. However, before they could resume work on the multimillion-dollar transfer, he expected them to send the six hundred thousand dollars that he needs for restitution.
After everything he’s been through he still holds onto the belief that it wasn’t all a big scam. His wife asks him if he’d try depositing another check to see if it would clear if the conmen sent him another one and, astoundingly, Worley admits he would. That’s an act of faith comparable to believing some guy 2000 years ago died to ensure you can spend the rest of eternity in Happy Land. It also demonstrates just how corrupting the Christian belief system can be to your ability to reason.
One is left to wonder just where Worley’s God was during all of this. There were certainly more than a few points in time that Worley called upon his deity to help him. Surely there’s some small bit of intervention God could have undertaken that would have headed things off before things got out of control. Worley was a pious man, a minister, one of God’s representatives. Could it be that it was God’s plan all along to allow Worley to go through all of this? Or is it more likely Worley’s prayers were to a being that wasn’t there to hear them in the first place? This whole episode doesn’t really do much to provide an answer to the question of whether a God of some sort exists, but it does a lot to show the damage that Christianity does to an otherwise intelligent mind.