Fraudsters Exploit Faith and Trust to Steal $580 Million

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Red FlagSocial Consensus

As an investor, you may be tempted by a seller's pitch to put your money into the next "hot" investment deal, especially if you hear that your friends, family—or even your fellow worshippers—are buying it.

After all, if everyone else is doing it, it must be good, right? Not necessarily. Psychologists call it "social consensus." Our brains tell us that when people around us are all doing something, it must be okay. But when it comes to investing, following the herd can be costly.

Criminals who commit affinity fraud exploit social consensus. They start by targeting groups that look or act like them. They might share the same backgrounds or ethnicity, or belong to the same church. They are the proverbial wolves in sheep's clothing. One shocking example was Greater Ministries International, a Florida-based Ponzi scheme that used religion to scam investors in Alabama and several other states.

"The way they put it was very interesting," said Joseph P. Borg, director of the Alabama Securities Commission. "This was God's Social Security program for Christians. In essence, God was guaranteeing the investment, and you would double your money in 17 months."

Borg, whose office investigated and played a major role in breaking up the scheme, said Greater Ministries came into Alabama and convinced local pastors they needed to be affiliated with the Florida church. By investing in Greater Ministries' African gold, platinum and diamond mines, cargo ships and foreign currency trades, churchgoers would receive a portion of the profits. The rest would fund missions abroad, homeless shelters and other charitable causes. The investments were sure to make money, the faithful were told, because they were doing God's work.

"When you have your pastor or your minister or church leaders saying, ‘We've looked at this. We believe this is good. You can make money on Earth and gain credit in heaven at the same time.' Well, your trust factor is so high, your suspicions are so low, that skepticism no longer exists," Borg said.

When it was all over, Greater Ministries had stolen almost $580 million from nearly 28,000 people. The criminals were convicted and sent to prison. 

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