Religious Fraud Prevention Tips

“I’ve been a securities regulator for 20 years, and I’ve seen more money stolen in the name of God than in any other way.” — Deborah Bortner, former president of the North American Securities Administrators Association (retired)

  • Know who you or your loved ones are dealing with. Just because it bears the name church, synagogue, mosque or has the word “ministry” attached to the name, does not give the organization any credibility. Make sure they have an actual address instead of simply a PO Box. However, even actual addresses can be faked from store locations that provide private PO Boxes. Unfamiliar charities or religious organizations can be checked out online with articles on our Trinity Foundation website, with Ministry Watch, with your state or local consumer protection agency, or with the Better Business Bureau.
  • No complaints is no guarantee—New religious organizations can and are being created so quickly that there may not have been enough time for any complaints to be filed. In the case of older organizations, some scams have been forgotten by a younger generation.
  • There are no ministry or church standards organizations. Other than mainline denominations that police themselves, there are no ministry, church, synagogue, or mosque standards organizations that provide accountability or prevent fraud. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) is no longer a standard of reliability. In former years, ECFA suspended member organizations that were not in compliance with their rules; however, now they only conduct private reviews. At one point, Michael Martin, Director of Legal Services and Legal Counsel for the EFCA, told Rusty Leonard of Ministry Watch, “When standards-related issues are under review with respect to a particular member, ECFA does not comment on our review.” ECFA also helped derail a Senate Finance Committee investigation into the misuse of donor money.
  • The IRS is not investigating religious organizations or churches. After a 2009 court decision overturned a particular church audit for not following the prescribed channels of authority, the IRS temporarily halted all church investigations.   The IRS did not investigate any churches for roughly 5 years afterward—even the most fraudulent.  Even today, out of at least 400,000 churches in the US, only a handful are investigated each year!  We get calls often about fraudulent pastors!  Remember, churches are not required to report anything about their finances to the IRS, much less for public review.  Pastors do have to report their salaries to the IRS but that too is private.
  • After a disaster, give to established charities. Many ministries or religious organizations use natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes to raise money for their organizations and only spend a minuscule amount, if any at all, on actual human relief efforts. Established charities already have an infrastructure that allows them to readily meet human need in a disaster.
  • Beware of imposters. Many religious organizations have similar sounding names, and it is easy to confuse fraudulent ones with others that have some integrity.
  • Keep an eye out for mailings with a religious overlay. Mail marketing is BIG BUSINESS—especially individualized mailings with the recipient’s name scattered throughout the mailing. Religious mailings generate billions of dollars each year for both legitimate and illegitimate ministries. One particular offender, St. Matthews Churches, appears on the surface to be a group of concerned church elders praying for your or your relative’s most desperate needs; however, nothing could be further from the truth. Others include People United for Christ, Word for the World Church, the Wisdom Center, Rockwealth Ministries, etc.  Please don’t hesitate to file a “Victim Abuse Questionnaire” if your family member has been donating to a suspicious organization.
  • Resist threats of divine retaliation. Many times, organizations will feature a cautionary tale of someone who fared poorly because they did not give to God (through that particular ministry)—even stories of those who were cursed because they did not give to a ministry! Don’t believe it!
  • Don’t believe promises of easy money from heaven. While it is certain that God answers prayer, our prayers are rarely answered exactly according to our wishes. God is not a ‘genie in a bottle’ or a heavenly slot machine. A prevalent heresy known as “Seed-Faith” theology goes something like this: “If I give money to God in faith, God will multiply that gift and reward my ’faith’ (as evidenced by my giving) with a miracle—either a financial miracle or a healing.” This is a lie. Don’t believe it. God operates by grace.
  • Don’t trust promises of a quick return on investment, no matter what the source—religious affinity fraud is rampant. Don’t trust your savings with any “Christian”, “Jewish,” or “Muslim” business men or women who wear their religion on their sleeve and promise an unusually high return on your money, i.e. a blessing from God. If it appears unbelievable, it probably is. Have that person checked out thoroughly first to see if the investment is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and whether or not the person or security has been investigated by the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) or the SEC. Even so, remember that convicted (and admitted) Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff was a trusted securities advisor for decades, falsely showing tens of billions of dollars in client accounts. Even a previous SEC investigation uncovered no wrongdoing. If someone contacts you with low-risk, high-return investment opportunities, stay away. When you hear pitches that insist you act now, that guarantee big profits, that promise little or no financial risk, or that demand that you send cash immediately, report them to the FCC.
  • Resist Pressure. Legitimate churches, ministries, and/or companies will be glad to give you the time you need to make a decision. If they are demanding you act immediately or won’t take no for an answer, you should strongly suspect a scam—especially if they are saying that you should “act now” while there is a “move of the spirit” or some other similar worn out line being used to “close the deal”. Look closely for suspicious credit card charges, whether large or small, and whether the card is maxed out or not—many religious organizations urge mailing recipients and/or followers to charge amounts on their credit cards. This kind of theft would probably tend to be in small amounts to avoid detection.
  • Look for regular cash withdrawals from checking accounts. The majority of donations to organizations (such as millions $$ monthly to St Matthews) come in the form of small cash gifts accompanied by prayer request forms (or simply prayer requests) sent through the mail. Read your or, with their permission, your relative’s bank statements each month.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask tough questions about your loved-one’s financial situation and if they are sending money to any religious organizations. Many victims have come to us after they have given so much of their savings that they are now impoverished, much less have any inheritance left to pass along.
  • Guard your personal information. Be very careful before giving out credit card information and don’t give out your social security number to any religious organizations—they have no need for it. Your social security number should only be necessary if you are applying for credit. Providing your bank account number should only be necessary if you need to set up regular online payments to a trusted company such as a utility company. Tear up and cut up new credit card offers before discarding them in the trash. We’ve even noticed some mailings from St Matthews Churches that have asked for some information necessary for identity theft such as mother’s maiden name, birth place city, etc. Beware!
  • Don’t reply to messages asking for personal or financial information and don’t send money to someone you don’t know. It doesn’t matter whether the message comes as an email, a phone call, a text message or an ad. Don’t click on links or call phone numbers included in the message, either. It’s called phishing (more here). The crooks behind these messages are trying to trick you into revealing sensitive information. If you got a message like this and you are concerned about your account status, call the number on your credit or debit card — or your statement — and check on it.
  • Keep an open line of communication with relatives, start slowly if necessary with questions about donations—It is often difficult to convince a family member who is a donor—especially an elderly donor—to stop giving to a particular ministry or televangelist they have been supporting. Sometimes there is no easy answer. If you press the issue too much you risk losing an open line of communication; however, if you don’t say anything your family member could quickly become bankrupt. Encourage that person to include you in giving decisions.
  • Don’t wire money. Don’t agree to deposit a check and wire money back. The safest way to pay for something online is with a credit card and your liability is generally limited in case of fraud.
  • Report scams. Please feel free to report religious fraud to our organization and use our religious abuse questionnaire here. We will try to help if we can. For obvious criminal fraud we will help direct you to the proper authorities—such as your state attorney general’s office or the Federal Trade Commission. For more donating tips from the FTC, visit this page and this page for more tips about avoiding fraud in general.   Need help avoiding internet fraud?– visit this hyperlink…   Or, do you want to know more from the FTC about avoiding identity theft?