House of God can be house of the con, too

In traditional church language, the congregation is the flock.

They are supposed to follow their shepherd, the Lord.

Too often, the flock is instead fleeced.

Churches have become a prime breeding ground for multi-million dollar affinity frauds, in which con artists convince others to invest in scams.

“The church is the best environment to sell a product like this,” says Rev. John Haycock, a Presbyterian minister and member of God’s Fraud Squad in B.C.

“It is never going to stop.”

Across Canada, thousands of churchgoers have lost millions and millions of dollars in church-based frauds.

In two notorious cases in Southwestern Ontario, about 200 people lost part of $66 million to Peterborough con artist Andrew Lech, working through church groups.

More than 200 Londoners are behind a lawsuit claiming $15 million lost and $750 million in promised interest from the TCI Investment Club. The club’s operators worked their way through two city churches.

Churches are ideal places for con artists to work because they offer a trusting group of like-minded people, says Haycock.

Churchgoers “come together because they believe in a specific way. You become part of the way they view the world. You create a trusting community. You become family.”

The closeness of a church community, its strength, can become its weakness.

A con artist can learn a church’s theology and style simply by going online and reading a church website.

“They know how to speak the language,” Haycock says.

Once a scammer joins a church, he or she makes friends with a leader or elder others trust.

The con artist gets to know other church members and when one day someone mentions a little financial difficulty or how it would be nice to have a little more cash, the con artist sets the trap.

Haycock can reel off the typical approach.

“Oh, I know a wonderful investment opportunity. I’m getting six per cent a month on my investment.”

To make it even more attractive, the con artist tells churchgoers to keep the deal a secret among them. Otherwise, everyone will get in on it.

Trust and anxiety work together to wipe out rational thought, Haycock says.

There may be even less chance for rational thought when other factors come into play:

• The church is led by a small group or one person with few checks and balances.

• The leaders promote what’s called the “prosperity gospel.” That’s the belief that God blesses good Christians with financial success. “It is like we can get into a business deal with God,” Haycock says.

Money is treated differently at evangelical churches than in other traditional Protestant and Catholic churches, says David Reed, a theology professor at the University of Toronto.

He was raised Pentecostal but became Anglican as an adult.

“We say, ‘We worked hard for money. Stay away from it.’ We don’t acknowledge God blesses us at all financially.”

Evangelical religions believe financial health is a blessing from God, he says.

“You have a responsibility to share it.”

Regardless of the different traditions, no church is immune from attack from affinity con artists, Haycock says.

Haycock and Catholic priest Seamus Mackrell work with the B.C. Securities Commission to help churches stop fraud in their congregations before it happens.

Both men work in hospitals and noticed several years ago that many of the churchgoers suffering stress and depression were victims of fraud.

Victims and their church leaders rarely want to talk publicly about the scams, but that’s exactly what must happen, Haycock says.

Given Ontario’s high concentration of churches, he encourages church leaders in this province to hook up with the Ontario Securities Commission to set up something like his God’s Fraud Squad.

“In the affluent society we live in, money is always available. Fraud is going to continue to happen.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday March 25, 2008.
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