The Deseret News’ Three Part Series on Affinity Fraud in Utah

hotspotsMy friend Dennis Romboy is a great reporter over at the Deseret News who put together a very detailed two-part story on affinity fraud that was published over the weekend.

Part One of the series was called “Utah’s fraud ‘epidemic’: Victims share anger, embarrassment, hurt” and provided the details of how a number of Utahn’s have been victimized by individuals in their community.  Here are some interesting takeaways from the article:

  • FBI supervisory special agent Mike Pickett, who heads the white-collar unit in the Salt Lake field office, estimates the annual dollar amount of fraud in Utah now exceeds $2 billion.
  • Utah Attorney General said affinity fraud is “rampant” in Utah. He has also used the word “epidemic” to describe what’s happening in the state, and that is despite aggressive efforts to prosecute criminals and educate an unsuspecting public.
  • So far in 2016, federal criminal fraud cases have totaled $59.3 million in losses, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
  • Utah is in the top five in terms of investigations, indictments, prosecutions and sentences for investment fraud.

A number of the individuals featured in this story are victims of the Thomas Andrews scam that was detailed in my prior post called “A Shocking Story of A Small Town Fraud.”  I applaud these individuals for their bravery in publicly talking about what happened to them in the hope that some people will read the story and avoid making the same mistakes.

Part Two of the series was about how to protect yourself from being defrauded.  The article lists a number of ways to protect yourself, including the following “Red flag warnings of fraud”:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
  • Guaranteed returns aren’t. Every investment carries some risk.
  • Beauty isn’t everything. Don’t be fooled by slick websites.
  • Pressure to send money RIGHT NOW.

The article quotes me a number of times, including “Pugsley has succinct advice for anyone who receives an offer that mentions religion. ‘If someone brings up the church in the context of an investment pitch, then that’s the end of the discussion and you leave the room because people try to conflate the two,’ Pugsley said. ‘There should be no connection between the church and investments. Period.'”

To round it all up the Editorial Board of the newspaper published an opinion on the need to “trust but verify” that I thought was worth reproducing here:

In our opinion: Utah must ‘be trusting but verify’ regarding affinity fraud

The bucolic land of eastern Ohio is home to sizable pockets of the Amish community. Known for their collective ethos, these tight-knit religious cooperatives thrive on high levels of trust and social cohesion. Yet, the same trust that produces a remarkable culture of burden sharing can be exploited to perpetrate fraud.

In 2012, Monroe L. Beachy, a trusted name within the Amish community, was sent to prison for orchestrating a scheme that defrauded some 2,700 investors, many of them friends and neighbors.

Of course, the Amish are hardly the only religious group that’s vulnerable. As the Deseret News reported in a two-part series this week on affinity fraud: “Bernie Maddoff’s $20 billion fraud targeted wealthy Jewish people in Florida and Israel. Allen Stanford went after Southern Baptists before his $7 billion empire fell.” And, according to the Economist, the state with the most affinity fraud per capita is thought to be Utah, where members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comprise some 60 percent of the population.

The common theme is communities with high levels of trust are particularly vulnerable to fraud. The solution then is a heightened scrutiny when mixing financial and religious relationship. Although there is unquestionably a role to play for government in preventing and punishing fraud, individual consumers must also take responsibility for how they spend their money.

As Utah Governor Gary Herbert told the Economist: “be trusting but verify.”

There are a variety of things consumers can do to fortify against potential affinity fraud. As noted, for starters individuals can exercise healthy dubiety, especially when an opportunity sounds too good to be true (spoiler: it probably is). Yet, this is easier said than done. The most effective schemes, for example, do not make extravagant claims. Bernie Maddoff was so successful because his “returns” were relatively modest, making his fraud more convincing.

As with Maddoff’s victims, 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. Keeping these principles in mind can protect consumers from deceitful investment opportunities claimed by people they know.

There have always been those who seek gain at the cost of others. Yet, in a hyper-competitive economy with strong cultural status expectations, a heightened temptation may exist to cut corners and profit at the expense of others. In such an environment, it’s incumbent on individuals of sound mind — as well as governments and community leaders — to guard against fraud.

After all, without willing investors, affinity fraud is impossible.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark W. Pugsley.  All rights reserved.

 

 

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