Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Religious Fraud Increasing

According to this AP article, the incidence of religion-related fraud is on the increase.

Billions of dollars has been stolen in religion-related fraud in recent years, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association, a group of state officials who work to protect investors.

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.”


The article lists several examples of scams where someone first befriended the pastor of a large church and ingratiated himself in the church community to gain their trust, then signed people up for some fraudulent investment scheme. That trust takes advantage of the insular nature of most church communities:

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.

The article also notes that one reason why such scams are effective is the increasing popularity of the “prosperity gospel” in many churches. And it doesn’t even include some of the most common frauds, particularly among televangelists and faith healers. Folks like Benny Hinn are absolute con men just as blatantly as any of the folks mentioned in the article. For crying out loud, Peter Popoff and Robert Tilton still have people sending them money after being exposed as frauds in public. There appears to be no scam so ridiculous that you can’t find someone who will fall for it.

Comments

  1. #1 matthew
    August 14, 2006

    oops, bad link

  2. #2 Will
    August 14, 2006

    I like how one of those Christian cable channels – I think its INSP – calls the donations “sowing a seed”; as if by donating a thousand or so dollars into David Cerullo’s bank account will force God to increase your own bank account in return.

  3. #3 FishyFred
    August 14, 2006

    WAY bad link. Looks like you just got done reading Pharyngula. I saw it there first.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    August 14, 2006

    Oops, fixed the link. And no, I didn’t get the youtube thing from Pharyngula, but from the reader who emailed the link to both PZ and myself. I was less impressed than he was. It was just a bunch of pictures of really smart atheists. Seemed rather pointless to me.

  5. #5 kehrsam
    August 14, 2006

    Fun juxtaposition of posts, Ed. The good folks being scammed here are exactly the same people who can’t imagine how the Bush administration might abuse secret powers.

    These are also the same folks who under Clinton suspected black UN helicopters and odd-looking contrails. Where did the skepticism go?

    This is not just a fraud problem, it is common to attempts to do legitimate business with other “Christians.” My church recently built a new Ministry Center. Over my objections, they contracted with a “Christian” construction company; over my further objections, the contract did not contain provisions protecting us from breach. We now have our building, but 11 months late and about half a million over budget, with no recourse. This wasn’t fraud, just a company using inside connections to rake in money and overextend its commitments. I’m guessing we’ll go with a more established company when we can finally afford the next phase of expansion.

  6. #6 tacitus
    August 14, 2006

    The irony about Peter Popoff is that after being caught using an earpiece to receive “divine revelations” about his victims via his wife, he discovered that the scam works almost as well without having to resort to anything other than pop psychology and slick talking.

    And the biggest fraud of them all, TBN, is raking in nearly $200 million per year in donations, over $70 million of which is just being left to accumulate in the bank. By last accounts they have over $400 million in liquid assests even as they are exhorting their viewers on a daily basis to send them more of their hard-earn cash. TBN is refusing to say why the money is being put aside – they obviously don’t need it to run their ministry.

    It is very sad to see people falling for this scam time and again.

  7. #7 tacitus
    August 14, 2006

    I like how one of those Christian cable channels – I think its INSP – calls the donations “sowing a seed”; as if by donating a thousand or so dollars into David Cerullo’s bank account will force God to increase your own bank account in return.

    I just wish people would ask themselves one simple question:

    If the 100-fold blessing really works, why aren’t the ministries giving away all their cash?

    After all, shouldn’t they receive the same blessing and end up with billions of dollars in their ministry bank account?

  8. #8 kehrsam
    August 14, 2006

    “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom oof God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Lk 18:24-5

  9. #9 tacitus
    August 14, 2006

    kehrsam, your “eye of the needle” quote doesn’t wash with the prosperity gospel crowd. They have dozens of ways to interpret the passage (as with all biblical texts) that allow them their scams and still be a “good Christian” (whatever that means). Here’s one:

    The “eye of the needle” was not referring to a sewing needle, but to the trade entrance in the city wall through which the merchants would bring in their camels laden with merchandise. If the camels were overloaded, they couldn’t get through the gate, so the merchant would have to unload some of the goods enabling the camels to continue.

    Jesus seems to be saying that success is not the problem. Rather, if it is going to keep you outside the City of God, then it is better to dump the ‘love of money’ so that you can enter in freely. To have a ‘love’ of money is to place it above the first commandment and you cannot serve two masters. The rich man could have kept his wealth and still had eternal life. Jesus seemed to have no problem with that. He was warning about wealth because it is the ‘love’ that is the root of all evil, not the money itself: The poor can love money just as much as the wealthy.

    http://www.flameministries.org/poverty.htm

  10. #10 kehrsam
    August 14, 2006

    I’m aware of that, Tacitus. However,

    1) These people have a great deal of difficulty dealing with metaphorical interpretations of either Genesis or scripture verses involving homosexuality, so there is a bit of a consistency issue here; and

    2) To my knowledge, there is not a single reference to the “lightening the load” interpretation pre-Constantine. It is easier to be anti-wealth when most of the flock are poor.

    For an excellent discussion of early church economic thought, see Robin Lane Fox’ “Pagans and Christians.”

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    August 14, 2006

    Robin Lane Fox is one of my favorite religious scholars.

  12. #12 somnilista, FCD
    August 14, 2006

    Christianity and gullibility have been linked for a long time. The Death of Peregrinus by Lucian of Samosata is still mostly relevant.


    Indeed, people came even from the cities in Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succour and defend and encourage the hero. They show incredible speed whenever any such public action is taken; for in no time they lavish their all. So it was then in the case of Peregrinus; much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it. The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.

  13. #13 Will
    August 14, 2006

    Its OK for Christians to be rich, because Jesus was rich. How do you think he afforded to ride around in a camel drawn carriage all over Israel?

  14. #14 mark
    August 14, 2006

    Will said:

    like how one of those Christian cable channels – I think its INSP – calls the donations “sowing a seed”;

    A mass mailing calling for donations to “St. Matthews Churches” also asked for a “seed” gift, and suggested that it be a big one. I thought at least Rev. Ike was more honest in his approach.

  15. #15 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    August 14, 2006

    The article lists several examples of scams where someone first befriended the pastor of a large church and ingratiated himself in the church community to gain their trust, then signed people up for some fraudulent investment scheme. That trust takes advantage of the insular nature of most church communities:

    Hummmmm this sounds very familiar.

    In July of 2003, Abramoff and Reed considered launching something called the Black Churches Insurance Program.

    We know how this scheme would have gone, because Abramoff pitched something similar to a cash-strapped Texas tribe, the Tigua. Basically, since the tribe couldn’t pay Abramoff, he offered to arrange “a life-insurance policy for every Tigua 75 or older.” When those elders died, the death benefits would have gone to Abramoff through one of his non-profits. The Tigua didn’t take Abramoff up on the offer, but it was too good of an idea to let go.

    So Abramoff apparently thought black churches were a good target. This would have been the same thing, according to GQ’s Sean Flynn, except that it was African-Americans. Or as “a former associate of Reed’s” told GQ, “Yeah… it sounds like Jack approached Reed about mortgaging old black people.”

    According to Abramoff’s email exchange (under the subject line “Black Churches insurance program”) with Reed in July of 2003 pitching the idea, it would have been huge:

    Per our previous discussion, Abramoff wrote. Let me know how we can move forward to chat with folks who can set this up with African American elders. It can be huge. Thanks.

    A file called “Charity Elder Program2.doc” was attached.

    Three days later, Reed replied: Yes, it looks interesting. I assume you’ll set up a meeting in DC as a next step, or whatever we should do next, let me know.

    Reed would have been the point man with the church leaders, one assumes, ushering them through the sticky process of getting all of their elders to sign up for life insurance policies payable to Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed.

  16. #16 tacitus
    August 14, 2006

    Have you noticed how many of the Christian radio stations are often infested with infomercial scams selling the latest cure-all creams and supplements? Maybe some of it has to do with the stations being strapped for cash and material with which to fill their time slots, but I’m sure that the scammers target these stations precisely because they know their listeners are more gullible than usual.

    It’s even more disgraceful that some of the infomercials feature pastors or doctors with “ministries” to lend themselves the credibility they don’t deserve.

  17. #17 386sx
    August 14, 2006

    I just wish people would ask themselves one simple question:

    If the 100-fold blessing really works, why aren’t the ministries giving away all their cash?

    After all, shouldn’t they receive the same blessing and end up with billions of dollars in their ministry bank account?

    What they do is they pretend like they’re the last word in bible interpreting, and, as we all know, the bible is god. Plus they will make pretend that they talk directly with god, often having spontaneous divine revelations and prophecies right then and there on stage. Naturally whatever god says makes plenty good sense even though it looks like it doesn’t make sense.

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