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.