Count Victor Lustig is one of the world’s most extraordinary conmen. Smithsonian Magazine reports, “He used 47 aliases and carried dozens of fake passports. He created a web of lies so thick that even today his true identity remains shrouded in mystery.”
In corporate filings and during trips some televangelists have also used aliases and misspelled names to hide their identity.
Lustig’s most famous crime was selling the Eiffel Tower in Paris to a junk metal dealer. Lustig falsely claimed to represent the government to pull off the con.
Lustig authored the “Ten Commandments of a Conman” which are worth examining because they have been embraced by criminals targeting unsuspecting churchgoers in a scheme called affinity fraud.
Commandment Four: Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
The key to committing affinity fraud is for the conman to convince the victims they share the same beliefs or group identity. So Victor Lustig told his victims what they wanted to hear. The future victims would believe that he was one of them.
Because affinity fraud often targets the wealthy, the scale of these crimes is staggering.
Deborah Bortner, former president of the North American Securities Administrators Association has said, “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.”
While operating the mother of all ponzi schemes, Bernie Madoff, who is Jewish, defrauded numerous Jewish organizations that came to him to invest their funds.
Wikipedia explains that religious leaders play an important role in these crimes: “They often enlist respected community or religious leaders from within the group to spread the word about the scheme, by convincing those people that a fraudulent investment is legitimate and worthwhile.”
Gregory Setser targeted wealthy Christians with a ponzi scheme. Televangelists Benny Hinn and Reinhard Bonnke helped Setser sell securities for his import/export business. Before the scheme collapsed and Setser was convicted of fraud, investors turned over more than $160 million thinking they could receive a 25 percent or higher return on their investments.
Gregory’s criminal schemes continued in prison. The Religion News Blog reports “In the approximately 500 calls, recorded over a six-month period ending only a few weeks ago, Mr. Setser appears to be plotting with his wife, Cynthia, and a man who described himself as a U.N. diplomat to bribe an unknown judge and arrange for a U.N.-backed band of 19 armed commandos to travel from Europe to bust him out of prison.”
Setser received a 40-year sentence for his crimes.
In November 2003, the same month Setser was arrested, Benny Hinn assisted another affinity fraud on his TV Program This Is Your Day. In the broadcast Joseph Medawar recruited investors for a TV series about the Department of Homeland Defense. Hinn promoted Medawar to his viewers, “God has had his hand on his [Medawar’s] family and on him and he is now a Hollywood producer.”
The investors’ funds instead paid for Medawar’s extravagant lifestyle.
The Los Angeles Times reported that after serving a short prison sentence, Medawar “drew a fresh four-year sentence Tuesday for padding his community service hours to go to movies and the gym.”
An old warning is worth repeating: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.