Church members are, in my observation, unusually susceptible to Ponzi schemes, multi-level marketing, Amway and similar programs, and other get-rich-quick devices. (I know, there are differences between Ponzi schemes and some types of legal multi-level marketing. As far as I am concerned, they are all dubious devices for removing money from the gullible.) I have wondered over the years why church members are more likely to be deceived. A few possible factors come to mind.
First and probably most important is the level of trust that exists between church members. Church members instantly give a very high level of trust to other church members solely by virtue of their church membership. We invite people over for dinner, we have them babysit our kids, we borrow and lend them our cars, we let them stay at our homes when they move in to the ward, we send our children on scout trips with them. This kind of instant trust is a very useful part of being a church member. However, it is susceptible to abuse, particularly financial abuse. (See also Dave’s brief note on this topic.) And the potential for abuse of trust may be particularly high where local leaders are also proponents of a scheme.
The Deseret News story quoted one shocked victim as stating about the scammer: “He’s a family man, he’s a religious man, he goes to church every Sunday. He sent us pictures of his grandchildren”. Imagine that — someone might be sending you pictures of his grandchildren, but also be scamming you. (Side note: Sending pictures of the grandkids? That takes evil to a new level!)
A second factor is the expectation of wealth that church members have. The scriptures talk about the Lord causing people to prosper in the land if they are righteous. Similarly, many church members expect not just to make ends meet, but to be wealthy. We expect that the Lord will provide us with wealth, and when we do not all become instantly wealthy, we begin to look for a deus ex machina to provide instant wealth. Financial scammers step into this gap.
A third and related factor is the LDS lifestyle, with its emphasis on church service and time spent with the family. Church members expect to become rich, but want to do so in a way that enables them to still meet for Family Home Evening every Monday, serve in the Elders Quorum presidency, and go on father-and-son campouts. This desire is not particularly compatible with traditional routes to wealth, which often involve lengthy and difficult sacrifices of time.
In contrast, financial scams appear to be a way to make money while also keeping the ability to spend time with one’s family or in one’s church calling. This seems like a righteous combination. (Members may also believe that they will be protected from financial scams since their intentions are righteous when they enter the scam.)
Fourth, the church continually emphasizes that our possessions come from God. The church has at times demanded that members give up all of their possessions; today, we are required to tithe. This creates an attitude of willingness to give up money for the Lord. That attitude is proper; however, it is easily perverted by financial scammers who prey on members such as by exploiting their righteous desires to spend more time with their families. Members may believe that they are led by the Spirit to invest in such schemes.
Finally, a possible fifth factor (I’m not sure about this one) is that perpetrators may feel that their church membership immunizes them from the wrong of their acts. They probably pay tithing on their ill-gotten gains. They may have convinced themselves of the righteousness of their products. And this sincerity may make them more successful in deceiving others.
These seem like the obvious potential factors in the overrepresentation of church members as victims of financial schemes. I am probably missing some factors as well. And, on reflection, I am surprised that the church does not do more to combat this problem. I suspect that an annual or semi-annual reminder — “Do not give money to church members without verifying the accuracy of any of their claims!” — would go a long way to preventing further victimization.