I’ve written previously about how the best people to scam are those who are already conditioned to believing in the ridiculous and, unfortunately for the True Believers™ out there, it appears more and more conmen on catching on to that truth:
Randall W. Harding sang in the choir at Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, Calif., and donated part of his conspicuous wealth to its ministries. In his business dealings, he underscored his faith by naming his investment firm JTL, or “Just the Lord.” Pastors and churchgoers alike entrusted their money to him.
By the time Harding was unmasked as a fraud, he and his partners had stolen more than $50 million from their clients, and Crossroads became yet another cautionary tale in what investigators say is a worsening problem plaguing the nation’s churches.
Conning the overly credulous has become the hot thing to do among the crooks looking to make a few bucks off of someone else’s ignorance:
Between 1984 and 1989, about $450 million was stolen in religion-related scams, the association says. In its latest count — from 1998 to 2001 — the toll had risen to $2 billion. Rip-offs have only become more common since.
“The size and the scope of the fraud is getting larger,” said Patricia Struck, president of the securities association and administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, Division of Securities. “The scammers are getting smarter and the investors don’t ask enough questions because of the feeling that they can be safe in church.”
Bend over and smile as Brother Billy Ray Bob anoints you with the love of the Lord! Here’s a few illustrative examples:
Lambert Vander Tuig, a member of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest Calif., ran a real estate scam that bilked investors out of $50 million, the Securities and Exchange Commission says. His salesmen presented themselves as faithful Christians and distributed copies of “The Purpose Driven Life,” by Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, according to the SEC. Warren and his church had no knowledge of Vander Tuig’s activities, says the SEC.
At Daystar Assembly of God Church in Prattville, Ala., a congregant persuaded church leaders and others to invest about $3 million in real estate a few years ago, promising some profits would go toward building a megachurch. The Daystar Assembly was swindled and lost its building.
And in a dramatically broader scam, leaders of Greater Ministries International, based in Tampa, Fla., defrauded thousands of people of half a billion dollars by promising to double money on investments that ministry officials said were blessed by God. Several of the con men were sentenced in 2001 to more than a decade each in prison.
“Many of these frauds are, on their face, very credible and legitimate appearing,” said Randall Lee, director of the Pacific regional office of the SEC. “You really have to dig below the surface to understand what’s going on.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when you’re dealing with people who believe in an invisible sky-fairy who hands out wishes just for the asking and will throw your ass into a pit of eternal torment if you don’t believe in him then it doesn’t take a whole lot to buy into anything that sounds even remotely reasonable in comparison. It doesn’t help things any when the church leaders themselves get sucked in by the hucksters and start shilling on their behalf:
Typically, a con artist will target the pastor first, by making a generous donation and appealing to the minister’s desire to expand the church or its programs, according to Joseph Borg, director of the Alabama Securities Commission, who played a key role in breaking up the Greater Ministries scam.
If the pastor invests, churchgoers view it as a tacit endorsement. The con man, often promising double digit returns, will chip away at resistance among church members by suggesting they can donate part of their earnings to the congregation, Borg says.
“Most folks think `I’m going to invest in some overseas deal or real estate deal and part of that money is going to the church and I get part. I don’t feel like I’m guilty of greed,’” Borg says.
If a skeptical church member openly questions a deal, that person is often castigated for speaking against a fellow Christian.
It also probably doesn’t help that “prosperity gospel” is growing in popularity among a number of congregations which teaches that the truly faithful will be rewarded financially here on Earth as well as in Heaven. When you’re already expecting to get a lot of money back for a little money given then it doesn’t take much work to talk you out of your hard earned cash.
And, as before, I’m torn between my contempt for people who would take advantage of the willfully stupid and my feelings that the victims really are to blame for bringing this upon themselves.