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Do religious people make easy targets for scams?
Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service
December 03, 2010
5 MIN READ TIME

Do religious people make easy targets for scams?

Do religious people make easy targets for scams?
Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service
December 03, 2010

Convicted Ponzi schemer

Bernard Madoff bilked billions of dollars out of thousands of fellow Jews,

including charities like the Elie Wiesel Foundation and Steven Spielberg

Wunderkinder Foundation.

Other major frauds exposed

by federal investigators in recent years have targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses,

Baptists, black churches and other denominations, from $190 million lost in a

three-year scam promoted by a Christian radio host in Minnesota to an estimated

$1.4 billion conned from thousands of Utah Mormons.

Now three Pakistani

immigrants — two believed to have fled the U.S. — are accused of swindling $30

million from hundreds of Chicago-area Muslims with an investment plan they

promised complied with Islamic law.

Is it simply too easy for

con artists to prey on people of faith?

“We’ve seen where it’s an

outsider who has come into the fold, and we’ve seen some where it’s a person

who has been a member of the community for decades,” said Lori Schock, director

of investment education and advocacy for the U.S. Securities and Exchange

Commission.

“We’ve had cases where

people quote Scripture, that the Lord wants you to make money. And when the

house of cards comes crashing down, the victims sometimes lose more than just

their money — sometimes they lose their faith, and it’s extremely sad.”

Why do religious groups make

such easy targets? For one, a swindler who professes the same faith, or belongs

to the same congregation, has an easy time of earning trust, however misplaced.

Duped investors, meanwhile, also hesitate to suspect or report on one of their

own, Schock added.

Although the FBI’s Utah

Securities Fraud Task Force has issued a warning to members of the Church of

Latter-day Saints, the SEC hasn’t examined whether religious groups are more

susceptible to “affinity fraud” — scams that target specific demographics,

whether evangelical Christians or the elderly.

But researchers say it’s a

question worth considering.

Harvard scholar Robert D.

Putnam and Notre Dame’s David E. Campbell found a connection between

religiosity and trust in others in their new book, American Grace: How Religion

Unites and Divides Us.

Based on Harvard’s 2006

Faith Matters Survey, Putnam and Campbell conclude religious people are viewed

as more trustworthy by both religious and nonreligious Americans, and also tend

to be more trusting of others.

In an interview, Campbell

said the strong social networks found in some faith communities, such as “the

tight bonds among Mormons,” seems to make them especially vulnerable to fraud.

“The underlying issue, I

think, is the question of mutual trust,” agreed Nancy Ammerman, a Boston

University professor of religion and sociology. “These schemes rely on and

exploit that trust, and people within religious communities tend to have high

levels of trust for others within their community.”

There’s also ease of access,

Ammerman said.

“Conversations are easy to

strike up, and everybody’s got a directory or an e-mail list or at least people

they talk to at coffee hour. The social connections are there, and that makes

it easier for someone with something to sell to get new customers.”

Anson Shupe, an Indiana

University sociologist and author of several books on faith-based fraud, said

his own research indicates evangelicals, Mormons and black churches are most

susceptible, while Catholics are relatively protected by a dense, hierarchical

network of clergy supervision.

“Protestants and Mormons

tend to believe that there is a sort of straightforward relationship between

keeping the tenets of the faith and contributing financially to it, and then

reaping rewards in the here and now,” he explained. “Some pastors preach a

one-to-one relationship between worldly prosperity and attendance to matters of

faith.”

Members of these groups also

believe that God wants them to prosper, and that God wouldn’t allow them to be

ripped off — especially not by someone who shares their beliefs, he added.

But Earl L. Grinols, a

Baylor University economics professor, believes any correlation between faith

and fraud stems from a “mistaken” perception that religious people as easily

misled. That prompts con artists to disproportionately target them, along with

the elderly and the newly affluent.

“It’s the ease of

identifying and finding people in the group to scam, and that the perpetrators

have a misperception that these members are more naive,” he said. “They may

tend to view (Christians) as more simple, maybe more easily led.”

Schock said potential

investors should check with the regional SEC office before handing money over

to potential con artists, whether it’s a longtime congregant in good standing,

a religious leader who has been endorsed by fellow clergy, or someone who

promotes an investment that appears faith-friendly, such as church bonds or

Islam-compliant loans.

“Trust, but verify,” she

said. “If something sound too good to be true, it probably is.”