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Trust and verify

By Ron Keener

Church members are wise to check out “a too good to be true” investment, that could dash their trust in those who are their fellow Christians.

Larry and Shirley Lee thought they were investing their life savings with trusted acquaintances – the music director at their church and a long-time member of the church – when they put $400,000 into what they thought was a fund that promised (in a brochure) “Safety, Strength, Stability” and a “locked-in” interest rate of 7.9 percent to investors who would put in a minimum of $25,000.

Moreover, not only did the Ohio Lees find their trust violated, but 89 other investors were cheated of $9 million. Elsewhere, in February an Amish man – yes, Amish – age 77, in Sugarcreek, OH, was charged with stealing $33 million from mostly Amish investors in an affinity fraud case.

Affinity fraud is when a shyster takes advantage of a special kind of bond, such as membership in the same church, to cheat or steal from someone. It happened this year to three families in the City on the Hill Church in Boulder, CO in a $750,000 Ponzi scheme. Kevin Lauritsen, 50, in cahoots with the former pastor and another former member of the church, were convicted; Lauritsen was not a member of the church.

Said one of the victims, who lost $275,000 in the scheme, to the local newspaper, “They represented themselves as Christians. They gained our trust. This is breaching trust at the most basic level.” The judge on the case said, “It is not a simple theft for them. It was a theft of their faith in God, which is profound.”

It is all too easy to say it happens all the time, with fraudsters preying on members of the deaf community, religious groups, and minority groups. The schemer violates the trust of his or her own community by falsely promising high returns and little or no risk. You would think that is enough to make any investor think twice, but it happens too often in churches to turn a blind eye to it.

It happens in a variety of settings other than churches: country clubs, senior centers, neighborhood groups. Says one observer, “The hallmark of the fraud is that the scammer looks like or talks like a member of that group. He may be a member of the congregation or a country club golf pro.” It could be an Asian person preying on Asian people, or an African American scamming other African Americans.

In churches, the con man may be “the most Christian of all” in his talk and presentations. Security expert Jeffrey Hawkins tells the story of another kind of fraud:

“What would you do if a woman walks into your church and describes herself as a single mother who needed money to support her two kids. She says she gave her son a $5 bill to put in the collection basket, but realized it was a $50 bill and needed the money back.

“Turns out a couple churches in Florida gave her the money; later police arrested three people in connection with these thefts and for planning to do this to many more churches for gas, cigarettes and ‘pills,’” Hawkins relates.

Hawkins tells too of a man caught sending fake invoices to churches for different services said to have been rendered for electrical work, plumbing, supplies or printing. None of the “invoices” were for large amounts of money, he says, and many churches paid them because they looked genuine — and they were services that churches would normally incur.

“The one thing about ‘scam artists’ or criminals that use deception as a means of theft, is that they are very smart, manipulative and don’t often follow the same methods — they adapt,” Hawkins says. “Where you can take some basic measures to keep out a burglar, more awareness needs to be asserted when dealing with fraudsters.”

I serve on the benevolence team of my congregation, each week making decisions about whether to help on rent or pay for utility bills to individuals really hurting from the down economy. We are guided by a policy we’ve adapted from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. In a year’s time the church probably provides $50,000 to those in need, taking up a mercy offering once a month to replenish the fund.

Con artists are targeting the church and its members. Common sense should prevail, but often isn’t enough. Ronald Reagan said it, in another context, but it is still good advice: “Trust, but verify.”

COMMENTS? RON@CHURCHEXECUTIVE.COM

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