Religious scams have been around as long as religion and are among the easiest and most repugnant scams around. Religious scams hide behind the guise of faith, using a person’s trust and good nature against them.
Thousands of trusting seniors lose money to religious scams every year, which should be no surprise with the growing number of 65+-year-olds in mainstream religious institutions.
Many people look at their place of worship as a sacred community free from the evils of greed and theft, which makes them the ideal unsuspecting target for these scams.
Religious scams also go by the name of affinity or church scams, but regardless of what you choose to call them, they are all the same with the sharing an identical goal of stealing your hard-earned money.
Over the more recent years, some of the scams we have seen in the media include Ephren Taylor, who preached the “prosperity gospel” at several mega-churches in more than 40 states.
Taylor sold high yield promissory notes for socially responsible business opportunities, such as supporting local businesses and building low-income housing. By the time Taylor was caught, he had swindled more than $16 million.
Gerald Payne, his wife, and three other cohorts used bible verses in a different scam to fleece their congregation out of $448 million. They told the church members that they would double their money through foreign investments, diamonds, and gold.
Yet, in another scam, a Jehovah’s Witnesses elder encouraged members to invest in real estate. One of the victims in this con was Ms. Elizabeth Morgan, who trusted in the elder and ended up losing her life savings, having to sell her home later and claim bankruptcy.
Though many of these scammers have been caught and are serving time, often it wasn’t in time to save their victim’s money. People like Ms. Morgan, who lost everything often, cannot recover their lost money, making it all the more vital to steer clear of religious scams.
Here we will uncover the most common religious scams and ways to avoid falling victim to religious fraud.
5 Religious Scams
- Affinity Scams
- Sob Story
- Reduced Price Equipment
- Pay in Advance Services
- Email Hijacking Scams
Con artists know that using a trusted shared bond, such as attending the same church, can be an easy way to prey on others. Essentially, affinity scams abuse the trust associated with that common bond.
Affinity scams are most effective in religious groups because members often let their guard down among other members of their church, mosque, or temple. Most people in the same congregation do not scrutinize other members like they would under other circumstances.
There is an unspoken trust found amongst those of the same religious organization that makes these scams work well.
Affinity scams are perpetrated by members of the church. These scammers are very subtle and often do not bring up investments until they have formed a stronger bond. At first, these fraudsters will advertise their success through clothes, cars, and so on.
After making the connection with their unsuspecting victim they will casually approach the subject of a great investment opportunity, which is when they spring their trap.
Con artists pick people who are trusting and have money to invest.
Affinity scams usually turn out to be a Ponzi scam, where people invest money and will see a little return on their investment in the beginning. However, over time their return dwindles and eventually dries up. MLM scams may be presented in this type of environment too.
Ways to avoid falling victim to Affinity Scams
Jenice Malecki, a securities lawyer from New York, encourages people to ask themselves why they are being approached regarding investment opportunities at their place of worship.
Malecki also urges people to look at this person and opportunity outside of the church; how would you receive this approach differently? Likely you would scrutinize this solicitation if you were anywhere else.
Additionally, investigate what credentials this person has to provide this financial advice. If you are still interested in this opportunity, take the time to do the research:
- Look into the company.
- Check out the broker on the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority website to see their history and if there are any disciplinary actions.
- Check out the Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website to determine the legitimacy of the broker.
- Discuss this opportunity with a third party such as your financial advisor, accountant, or find and securities lawyer.
Taking the time to do your due diligence before investing in your retirement nest egg may save you from significant financial hardships down the road.
The sob story scam is frequently committed by fairly new congregation members, who drift from one church to the next, continuing their scam. Though these scams do not result in the loss of millions of dollars, many people lose hundreds and possibly thousands of dollars.
The sob story scam is just that a sob story, but a totally bogus one. Common sob stories are:
- Needing money to go home for a family member’s funeral
- Needing money to visit a sick family member
- Needing money to cover medical expenses
- Needing money to cover rent when the scammer has “lost their job.”
No one wants to turn their back on someone who has fallen on hard times, particularly not at church when the congregation has just listened to a sermon on helping those in need.
And in 2020, when the unemployment rate reached a new all-time high, this scam worked particularly well.
Most people committing this fraud will not ask for money but will tell you their sob story and wait for you to offer to help them. Though if you do not offer, they will usually work their way up to asking you.
Unfortunately, this scam is most often directed at seniors since fraudsters seem to know that seniors are more trusting and often have a soft spot for helping those in need.
Ways to avoid falling victim to the Sob Story
What makes this scam so hard is it is difficult to determine its legitimacy. The only way to know if it is real or not is to research the person before offering them money.
Reduced Price Equipment
This scam impacts the churches directly. People scamming churches usually act as a third party for equipment sales or rental.
Some churches find themselves in great debt after signing a contract for leased or purchased equipment they thought was discounted or free. It isn’t hard to imagine that churches would receive discounts on office items, projectors, or AV equipment, so churches usually are happy to sign these contracts when approached with such a great deal.
The most common practice is hidden fees or other price adjustments buried in the fine print.
Ways for the religious organizations can avoid Reduced Price Equipment Scams
It may be hard to fathom that scammers would sink so low as to rip off a religious organization, but that is one of the key reasons it works so well. The good news is there are ways to avoid these scams:
- Read the fine print.
- When possible, work directly with the manufacturer or primary supplier.
- Research, the company that you are leasing or buying from
- Check the business out on the Better Business Bureau.
- If it seems too good to be true, take some time to investigate their claim.
Pay in Advance Services
There are several wonderful services geared to help seniors. Many of these programs that aid seniors are sponsored through their religious organizations.
So when seniors are approached by someone claiming to be from their church, it is no wonder they trust what the person is selling. These scams often claim to offer discounted rates for various services such as meals on wheels, home repair services, yard work, or housework.
After the senior agrees to sign up for these discounted services, they are told they need to pay upfront, which they do, and then they never see that person again.
Ways to avoid falling victim to the Pay in Advance Scam
If someone is claiming to offer services through your church or other organization, check it out with the group first before handing over the money. If the discounted service offered is legitimate, no one will pressure sell you into it on the spot.
Some of these fast talkers will also attempt to sell you things you don’t need, so take the time to find out more about the service and be sure it fits your needs.
Email Hijacking Scams
It is not too hard for experienced hackers to hijack a religious official’s email address and steal a list of email addresses for the congregation. In this scam, congregation members receive an email that appears to be from their trusted religious leader asking for money for one reason or another.
They will usually request gift card numbers and pins or ask for a wire transfer. The email is written requesting the money with some urgency, and most members are happy to help out.
Ways to avoid falling victim to the Email Hijacking Scam
Emails that are part of these scams usually have several typos and misspellings. Also, these emails are normally addressed with a generic greeting like “Hi” but without your name.
Additionally, when asked to pay money via wire transfer or gift card that should always a significant warning that it is a scam.
If you are concerned about the sender, reach out via phone and ask if the email is legitimate; likely, it isn’t, and a new email can be sent out warning others about this scam.
As critical as it is to highlight the various religious scams, it is equally vital to point out that most religious organizations and leaders are trustworthy. The intent of this article is not to cast a shadow on one’s faith, but instead, bring awareness to avoid losing money to church scams.
Just use caution and do your due diligence to avoid being caught up in a religious scam.