When Con Artists Reach Into Their Victims’ Wallets, It’s Often A Religious Experience
The Hartford Courant, Apr. 18, 2004
The con game is almost as old as the Bible. Target the audience, tailor the presentation, and prey on vulnerability. If religion happens to be an important part of someone’s life, dust off a copy of the Good Book and utter a few lines of Scripture.
That’s what John W. Gillette did when luring athletes into his stable of financial deceit.
That’s what Donald D. Lukens did when recruiting athletes for his bogus investment schemes.
And that’s what William “Tank” Black did when convincing his clients that he was qualified to handle their finances.
“When I hear that, it just burns me to the core,” said former Giants defensive lineman George Martin, a New York investment adviser. “Why? Because I fell victim to that, too.”
Martin played for the Giants in 1975-88 and always had one eye on his life after the NFL. He was sensible enough to save and invest, skeptical enough to not trust just anyone with his money.
But in the mid-’80s, Martin followed the advice of a financial adviser and invested in oil and gas limited partnerships. He ultimately lost money when tax laws changed and regretted his decision.
What he regretted most, though, was that his judgment was clouded. The adviser gained Martin’s trust by forging a bond based on religion.
“He said all the right things,” Martin said. “And I listened to him.”
That is a more common outcome than Martin or any victim of a financial scam may think. Three years ago, the Washington-based North American Securities Administrators Association issued a warning about investment frauds that are tied to religious or spiritual beliefs.
The warning came after three high-profile cases in which churches and foundations bilked a combined $1.5 billion from their targets.
“I’ve been a securities regulator for 20 years and I’ve seen more money stolen in the name of God than in any other way,” said Deborah Bortner, the director of securities for the state of Washington and the NASAA president when the warning was issued in August 2001.
Why are people so vulnerable to scams when religion is invoked? In the cases of some NFL players who might otherwise be suspicious of an outsider, a reference to God and the Bible is like shorthand.
“Speaking my language,” said former NFL lineman D’Marco Farr, who was bilked by Lukens.
“Religious words, religious objects carry a symbolic meaning with people,” said Jon Bloch, assistant professor of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University. “So if you have a certain kind of religious background and someone invokes certain words or certain objects or certain passages from the Scriptures, it can produce an emotional experience within the person.”
The use of religion to make money is not new. From the traveling preacher bouncing from one town to the next to slick money-handlers in high-rise offices, scam artists have used religion to reach their victims.
“Almost all of us want to improve our financial lot in life. … That’s the American way,” said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif. “And we also have a significantly high level of trust in people who we think of as religious. We think of them as being moral, honest, and the like. If you get someone who’s wearing their religion on their shirt sleeve and at the same time offering to advise you on financial matters, there tends to be a higher level of trust than with just any banker or financial adviser.”
Bloch said the elements of religion that attract people are the same characteristics that make them vulnerable.
“It’s drawing upon this sort of more emotional, faith-based, so-called non-logical kind of belief system or world,” Bloch said. “You can’t explain it to an outside person. It’s more emotional than rational. That’s a double-edged sword when someone can take advantage of that person based on the words they say.”
And that is why a victim of such a scam may feel doubly violated. Not only is there a financial loss, but a victimization at the spiritual core.
The NFL players who were taken say they were left bitter, but their religious faith is unshaken. Melton, who specializes in the study of new religions, said that is a sign of a more mature view of religion and perhaps a deeper faith.
“You can have your faith shaken,” said Melton, a former United Methodist pastor. “But it’s usually with the average church member, particularly a young and less knowledgeable believer. Old people are maybe more used to it. I’ve seen enough cases myself that the next one wouldn’t faze me a bit. I’m not sure where it’s going to come from, but I’m sure there’s going to be one. That’s just one of those things you have to learn.
“But for the average believer, to have someone with whom they have a high level of trust because of the shared religious ties, to do something like this to them, it’s just extremely damaging.”
For Martin, the experience provided a lesson he has carried in his business life. Now 51, he runs the sports financial services department for the MONY Group and has a client list of about 100 athletes in all sports.
“I am a Christian, but I never bring that into business,” Martin said. “That’s something that is separate.”