By Sharon Lindbloom
2 November 2016
Last week Deseret News ran a two-part report on affinity fraud, a type of scam that relies on cultural connections to lull victims into a false sense of security. Utah has been called the “fraud capital” of the U.S. because Mormons, who are the resident majority, are often persuaded to trust anyone who claims an LDS church affiliation. The Deseret News journalist, Dennis Romboy, wrote of one con artist who
“showed or mentioned his LDS Church temple recommend to potential investors. He decorated his office with what investigators described as Mormon ‘memorabilia’ to breed a sense of trust. He had unwitting LDS missionaries come by his office when he was there with investors.”
These con artists convinced people that they were trustworthy — but they weren’t. They stole money, security, and hope from their victims. The con left them feeling “vulnerable and exposed,” and mad at themselves for falling for it.
“You hear about this stuff on the news and you think, ‘Poor dumb buggers. How can they be so stupid?’ [one victim] said. ‘Then the next thing you know, you’re the one that’s stupid.’”
These victims think they shouldn’t have been so trusting, that they should have seen red flags. But, as one sadly noted, “Boy, did I read him wrong… There was nothing that made us feel that was not right.”
The con artists were likeable people. One victim described his scammer as “A kid that you’d say, ‘I’d really like my son to be like him,’ just really dynamic, a go-getter, but he didn’t know the difference between a truth and a lie.”
According to Mr. Romboy, almost all scam victims say they “missed red flags” that should have alerted them to trouble. He wrote,
“People hand over their nest eggs not based on an analysis of the merits of the actual investment. They don’t vet the business or offering. Instead, it’s based on the relationship with the person: We go to church together. She is a friend of a friend. Others in the community have invested with him.”
The con artists can get away with this because, according to one expert, “people want to believe that others who they think share their same views, beliefs or faith will have their best interests at heart.” While another expert in the field explained, “Even when red flags are apparent, it’s like they don’t want to believe something bad is happening…”
A follow-up Deseret News editorial cautioned people to “exercise healthy dubiety, especially when an opportunity sounds too good to be true (spoiler: it probably is).” Furthermore, the editorial noted,
“…in Utah there are many highly educated and discerning individuals who have been taken in. Thus, it’s important to look beyond the facade of an investment company to determine its validity, and be doubly cautious about mixing church and financial relationships. There is no substitute for doing your homework instead of relying on the word of someone you trust in other settings.”
It’s not only in the arena of finances that this sort of thing happens. I’m reminded of a friend who joined the LDS Church under similar circumstances. She made friends with her Mormon neighbors who, naturally, invited her to become an “investigator” of their church. Throughout the course of the “investigation,” my friend heard one side of Mormonism from her neighbors and Mormon missionaries, and the other side from me, someone who has never been LDS. The doctrines and history that the Mormons were not telling her seemed so far-fetched that she could not believe it. She asked her neighbors about the LDS doctrines of men becoming Gods, of human beings’ eternal procreation and creating worlds, of celestial polygamy, and was told, “We don’t believe that! These are just lies told by enemies of the Church.” My friend reasoned, “Intelligent people would not believe this stuff. And my neighbors are intelligent. Therefore, this crazy stuff is not a part of Mormonism.” So she joined the Church. Twenty years later she realized something was wrong. Then she investigated, and left the Church soon thereafter. My friend was a victim of a type of affinity fraud.
It’s important to realize that affinity fraud is not always perpetrated by those who knowingly lie and victimize people. Often it is brought about by people who have the best of intentions, but who have themselves been deceived. They believe it, and they pass on the lie. The Deseret News report on affinity fraud tells the story of a father who unwittingly got his daughter involved with the con artist. The father and daughter both became victims of the swindle.
Most Mormons are Mormons because of someone they know and trust. Maybe they were raised in Mormonism, taught by their parents to believe. Or they fell in love with a Mormon and “investigated” the Church due to their love-interest’s influence. Or they had friends who introduced them to the missionaries. Or the LDS missionaries won their trust by their kind and quiet ways. So they “don’t vet” the Mormon Church. They “miss the red flags” or ignore them because “they don’t want to believe” Mormonism could be something different than what they’ve been told. But in many cases, it is something different — even if those passing on the information don’t know it, having been fooled themselves.
Mormons will tell me that they may have considered Mormonism because of a friend, but their faith is grounded in their testimonies. That is, they have prayed and received a spiritual confirmation that Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the LDS Church are all true; no further vetting is required. But my question is this: Where did you get the idea that you could/should pray to know that these things are true and that God would tell you by a spiritual manifestation? This idea traces directly back to Joseph Smith.
No, my Mormon friends may tell me, this directive to pray to know whether something is true comes from scripture, beginning with James 1:5 in the Bible. But James 1:5 actually directs people to ask God for wisdom in the midst of trials and temptations. The unique Mormon interpretation suggesting that this passage calls people to pray for knowledge regarding specific truth claims was provided by Joseph Smith.
Similar prayer directives that Mormons may point to are found in the LDS scriptures Moroni 10:4 and Doctrine and Covenants 9:8 — both written by Joseph Smith. Thus, very many people believe in Mormonism because Joseph Smith convinced them that they should trust his method of determining truth. A method, by the way, that is formulated in such a way that there can only be one “right” answer.
- Joseph Smith said James 1:5 directs people to pray to know if something is true.
- Joseph Smith, through Moroni 10:4, said that if you ask God sincerely in faith, God will tell you Mormonism is true.
- Joseph Smith, through D&C 9:8, said that if you ask God if something is right He will tell you via a burning in the bosom and you will feel that it is right.
It all goes back to Joseph Smith. But what if he wasn’t what he claimed to be? What if he was like one of the men mentioned above, “just really dynamic, a go-getter, but he didn’t know the difference between a truth and a lie”?
Predating Joseph Smith by nearly two thousand years we have the Bible warning us:
- That our feelings are unreliable (e.g., see Jeremiah 17:9; Proverbs 14:12, 28:26. Such unreliable feelings are one reason, according to the Deseret News report, that people are ultimately victimized by affinity fraud.)
- And that we must be very careful about who we believe, because false prophets are deceptive:
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” 2 Corinthians 11:13-15
(Deseret News cites deception, that is, likeable people posing as trustworthy friends — or temple worthy Mormons — as another reason people get sucked into an affinity fraud scheme.)
Rather than trusting a nice charismatic guy, our feelings, or even impressive signs and wonders (Matthew 24:24), the Bible tells us to prayerfully:
- Test the prophets (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:20-22)
- Try (test) the spirits (1 John 4:1)
- Search the scriptures (Acts 17:11)
Following the biblical directions for verifying spiritual truth claims will expose red flags that we need to be aware of in order to avoid getting into trouble. There’s an extremely high cost to being fooled about eternity. So even when it comes to our religion we should follow the advice given in the Deseret News editorial: exercise healthy dubiety, be doubly cautious, and do our homework. This is how we will escape being taken in by a lie (see 2 Timothy 2:25-26).
For questions to aid in discovering red flags, see: “Questions for the Sincere Investigator of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Also, check out Utah: The Gullible and their Money Being Soon Parted along with a 5-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast originally airing in July 2016