Religious fraud increasing

Continuing on the theme of Christianity and giving away wealth, the Associated Press notes that religious 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 last point is elaborated on with some specific examples in the article, and with this summary:

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.

Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation Inc. in Dallas, which investigates fraud and televangelism, partly blames the churches themselves for the problem. Anthony contends that the “prosperity gospel” — which teaches that the truly faithful are rewarded with wealth in this life — is creeping into mainstream churches.

Ole Anthony has worked hard to expose fraud by televangelists, occasionally teaming up with skeptics to do so. I heard him speak at an “unofficial session” at the Dallas CSICOP conference in 1992.

Hat tip: Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

UPDATE (September 2, 2009): Another major fraud against churchgoers.

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  • Daniel Rutter

    There’s a joke here that’s too obvious for me to even bother making.

    But it also occurs to me that if someone successfully scams Lexus-driving “Christians” out of all of their prosperity-preaching-approved money with the intention of spending it on cocaine and hookers, at least the money is now in the hands of someone more deserving.

    Of course, the people who often get scammed are those who least deserve it and can least afford it, on account of the basic real-world economic fact that the easiest way to get rich by stealing is to target the poor.

  • spfldnet

    What kind of scam is it called when (hypothetically), a pastor colludes with someone on the outside to dupe the rest of the congregation?

  • Jim Lippard

    spfldnet: I think it depends on the specifics. In general, these kind of religious frauds fall into the category of “affinity fraud,” a very large example of which was the Baptist Foundation fraud in Phoenix.

    The Rev. Michael Jude Fay case may meet your description–he spent $1.4 million of church funds on a life of luxury with his partner, Cliff Fantini. Though it’s not clear Fantini was that involved with duping the congregation, rather than just helping spend the money. (Here’s another story on that case.)

  • Frank Walton
  • Jim Lippard

    There’s a much smaller market for con artists who target atheists than for con artists who target Christians, but I don’t dispute that they exist.

    Those who are skeptical are usually tougher marks than those who are believers, as well.

  • Mark Plus

    Pascal legitimized the practice of gambling for christians. Why should it surprise us that christians want to apply the gambling approach towards getting unearned money?

  • Frank Walton

    Of course you’ll have more “Christian” con artists (or Christians being conned) than atheists, if you consider the number of Christians in American compared to atheists. We out number you by probably hundreds if not millions.

  • vjack

    When I hear the phrase “religious fraud,” I have a hard time getting past the truth that religion IS one big fraud.

  • Sheldon

    I followed Frank Walton’s link to his blog, and apparently comments are blocked on his “Atheists Suck” blog. Anyway, I emailed him the following comment:

    Hello Frank Walton,

    Are comments prohibited on your blog? Why? Anyway, most atheists don’t claim that being an atheist leads to moral behaviour. We, or at least I, are not neccesarily surprised that O’Hair was in fact quite a nasty person, and in fact I have read some severe criticism of her character in atheist publications.

    Atheists do take some satisfaction in the public revelations of religious believer’s immorality because religious people claim that religion is neccessary for morality. Of course it is statistically insignificant to find an instance of immoral behaviour by a believer. But when the immorality starts forming a pattern, then one starts to wonder if religious believers are actually more immoral than non-believers?


  • Martin Wagner

    Affinity fraud in religious circles is, I would suspect, not merely a matter of there being more believers than non-believers, but also a matter of believers being more gullible and less inclined to critical thinking. When a con artist ingratiates himself to, say, a pastor, and fools the pastor first, then the congregation is more amenable to falling for the fraud because they consider the pastor an authority figure. Believers being, in general, people who have accepted an authoritarian view of life, they’ll often think, “Well, my pastor trusts this guy, so he must be okay.”

    A fellow atheist friend of mine tells of how his fundamentalist father was bilked out of over 100 grand by one of his church members. He allowed himself to be convinced by the guy’s story that Armageddon was right around the corner and that the sagacious investor ought to dump all his soon to be worthless cash and invest in gold. It seems a transparently stupid scam to all of us, I’m sure, but to someone not inclined to think critically at all, if the story is delivered with authority by a confident huckster, the sale is all but closed.

    I don’t think religious affinity fraud is so much an indicator that religious people are no more moral than atheists (though that should be obvious in spite of nonstop Christian claims to their moral superiority). It is an object lesson in the cost of lacking skepticism and critical thinking, and the badness that can result from adopting a faith-based approach to life in which skepticism is rejected as non-virtuous behavior.

  • James Still

    “…the sagacious investor ought to dump all his soon to be worthless cash and invest in gold.”

    Actually, that wasn’t a bad move at all. Inflation would have slowly eroded his cash since it wasn’t invested. And gold has gone from about $300/oz in 2002, to $400/oz in 2004, to around $620 today.

  • Heather Simpson

    Anyone ever think maybe those that are actually committing the fraud may not be what they appear to be? Maybe they aren’t Christians but just posing as Christians because Christians are taught to give people the benefit of the doubt, and give a person their coat if they steal their hat, etc.

    Also, atheists and other non-believers just don’t seem to comprehend being compassionate over critical, or laying your life down for someone else even if they screw you over. This is exactly what Jesus did and wants us to do.

  • Aquaria

    What a bunch of bollocks, “heather”

    You claim that atheists know how to be compassionate. WTF? Define compassionate. To this atheist, it’s helping the least of us, like the sick, the elderly, the poor, the imprisoned and the creatures and plant life of this earth. This atheist doesn’t believe in torture, or the death penalty. Funny, plenty of Christians these days are all for torturing people, to “protect” them. I’m not, but enough of y’all are running around with piss running down your legs, you’re so scared of “them,” whoever they are.

    Atheists also know how to sacrifice. Think that an atheist wouldn’t put his or her life on the line to save another? Plenty of atheists would defend their children and their family with their dying breath (we have both, y’know). BTW, when did you sign up for the military–you know, putting your life on the line for your country? This atheist did.

    Care to retract those idiotic remarks now?

    How presumptuous to think you know what atheists will or will not do. You’ve never known one, or you would know better than to say something so asinine.

  • Aquaria

    Blech. Claims that atheists “don’t” know how to be compassionate. I was so outraged, I forgot to include that in the first line.

  • Jim Lippard