The Press-Enterprise—January 4, 2006
Churches can unwittingly enable scams, experts say
SCAMS: Con artists commonly target church congregations with promises of big returns.
By DEVONA WELLS and BETTYE WELLS MILLER
Experts suggest that prospective investors take these steps to avoid investment scams:
But Tyler, 50, didn’t want to miss out on the generous returns being reaped by her pastor and other parishioners. So, in 2002, she wrote a $90,000 check to Winston George Ross, who gave investment seminars at Valley Crossroads Seventh-day Adventist Church in Pacoima.
By the time she moved to Fontana in June 2003, the monthly returns from her investment had dried up. Ross’ scheme collapsed that year, and he was sentenced in November to almost 13 years in prison for scamming hundreds of people nationwide — most of them Seventh-day Adventists — out of more than $6.5 million.
Tyler lost more than two-thirds of what she’d invested, money from the sale of her house as part of a divorce settlement. She now lives frugally and worries that because she lost the expected investment income, she may not be able to keep her home.
“Had it not come through my church and been endorsed by my minister, I would never, never have invested with him,” she said.
Church congregations are a common target of investment scams, whether it’s parishioners’ money or church funds that are taken. From 1998 through 2001, at least 80,000 people lost $2 billion in scams that targeted church members, according to the most recent figures from the North American Securities Administrators Association. The organization’s members are state regulatory agencies, including California’s Department of Corporations.
Because backgrounds and social circles are shared, trust is a big factor for those who invest through people or opportunities found at church, experts say. Additionally, at least 50 percent of these scams occur in congregations whose pastors preach a gospel of wealth and prosperity rather than emphasizing the wise use of what you have, said Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, an associate professor at the Haggard School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University.
“If you put enough money in, God will bless us,” she said, paraphrasing a typical promotion. “There are confidence men and women who travel around the country fleecing churches. If you cover things with Christian language, it works.”
Crossroads in Corona
At Crossroads Christian Church, Corona’s largest church at 6,500 members, parishioners and at least one pastor sold churchgoers on a deal that promised bimonthly returns of as much as 12 percent. By contrast, S&P 500 stocks have returned an average of 12 percent annually, including dividends.
The money was raised through JTL Financial Group, which brought in $18 million from various investors. It collapsed in 2004.
Randall Harding, the president of JTL and a member of Crossroads, pleaded guilty last January to money laundering and wire fraud and is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 27.
Harding’s investors were mailed refund checks in December for about 7.6 cents for each dollar lost.
Crossroads leaders have declined repeated requests for comment; Harding also has not responded to letters and e-mails asking for an interview.
Parishioners tend to trust their church more than any other organization, including law enforcement, said Paul Nelson, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
“We have found if the pastor says it, they’ll much easier follow it than if someone else says it,” he said.
The watchdog group has accredited more than 1,000 churches and other charitable groups as good stewards of donors’ money. Churches can protect against corruption and scams by conducting regular audits of their finances and forming a committee to study the audit and report the findings to the church board, according to council recommendations.
“Sometimes they say, ‘We don’t really have the financial expertise on our board.’ We say, ‘Why don’t you go get it?’ “ Nelson said.
Most churches, however, never even do an audit, he said.
Scams that prey on churches and their members often are referred to as a type of “affinity fraud,” one of the top 10 frauds tracked by the Department of Corporations. The department is in charge of enforcing California’s investment laws.
Affinity fraud also can target other insular groups, such as members of the military or of a given ethnic group, said Department of Corporations spokeswoman Susie Wong. She painted a picture of a con artist who infiltrates a group, learns its language and customs, and uses the status to take money.
Ross, who posed as a Seventh-day Adventist, represented himself as endorsed by high-ranking members of the church nationally, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas A. Axel.
He also got senior church leaders to invest early on and used their support to get other members to invest.
Daniel Heath, who has pleaded not guilty to securities-fraud and grand-theft charges filed in Riverside County, used the church he attended in Chino Hills to recruit investors.
He also talked religion with those who came to his offices in Brea, Pasadena and Hemet and kept a Bible on his desk.
Sometimes, church members are targeted more out of convenience than a premeditated plan, said Mike Quesnel, a Riverside County prosecutor. “The first people you defraud are the people you know,” he added.
Heath’s firm, D.W. Heath & Associates, raised about $192 million from more than 1,600 investors. Those who gave money, mostly senior citizens, are expected to see about 15 percent returned.
Churches, always looking for ways to stretch dollars for lofty goals, also become victims, Sanchez-Walsh said.
In fact, con men prey on pastors by offering scams they say will secure financial success for the church’s ministry, she said.
An Assembly of God church in Prattville, Ala., folded three years ago after members were conned out of more than $4 million they thought would be used to expand the church. Ultimately, the holder of the church’s mortgage foreclosed and the congregation dissolved, according to news accounts.
Gregory Earl Setser told Christian churches and ministries that his International Product Investment Corp., based in Ontario, would use their money to import products resold to Pier 1 Imports and Costco.
He pleaded not guilty in 2004 to multiple felony charges and is scheduled to go on trial this month.
But a federal indictment accuses Setser and his family of offering fictitious investments while running a Ponzi scheme, which uses money from later investors to pay earlier ones.
Authorities say Setser raised more than $160 million from 29 churches or ministries and hundreds of individuals. The company appointed to analyze International Product Investment Corp. records said investors were shorted at least $35 million.
The president and treasurer of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel resigned in March 2004 when the Los Angeles-based Pentecostal denomination lost $14 million in two fraudulent investment schemes, one of them Setser’s.
Some clergy and theologians say churches that encourage investment and other programs to increase personal wealth can make their congregations more vulnerable to con artists.
Barry Minkow, an evangelical pastor and convicted felon who now investigates investment fraud for a company he co-founded, said con men use the gospel of prosperity to sell frauds. Many draw on the Bible to tell churchgoers that what they are selling is how God has chosen to make them wealthy.
“If you know Scripture doesn’t teach that, then you’re not going to fall for it,” he said.
Minkow, jailed in 1988 for his role in the ZZZZ Best carpet-cleaning fraud, has since assisted the FBI investigate at least seven criminal-fraud cases.
Because churchgoers tend to be a sympathetic audience, he said, they are unfairly gaining a reputation as na´ve investors.
“Christianity teaches us to assume the best in people, always. That’s our greatest strength and our greatest weakness,” Minkow said.
Experts say any investment, regardless of where you find it, should be examined thoroughly.
“I never understand why people are seeking financial advice in churches, which are geared for spiritual advice,” said Bob Webster, spokesman for the North American Securities Administrators Association. “I think a better place to go to for financial advice is a financial professional.”
In San Bernardino, First Congregational Church UCC has an unwritten policy that parishioners do not mix church and business, said the Rev. Petra Malleis-Sternberg.
Some churches let members advertise in the church bulletin or encourage members to do business with one another because they presumably share the same values, Malleis-Sternberg said by phone.
“Our church isn’t that way,” she said. “We prefer to leave business at business and prefer the church to be a place where we can just be together.”