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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