Thursday, 10 October 2013

Nigeria: Affinity Fraud in Community and Church Settings

No apologies
Quite a number of times I have been accused of being a church-basher, someone who excoriates certain activities in religious circles, condemning without mincing words the abuse that exploits trust and vulnerability by unconscionable wolves in sheep’s clothing. I am not one to apologise for my previous comments in blogs and on Twitter.
No gathering of people on earth can repudiate the need for truth, for justice, for fairness and for honesty. These are virtues that should be ever present in religious settings giving comfort to the many who seek refuge from a turbulent and riotous world where dog eats dog and the survival of the fittest cares not for whose blood is shed in the process.
Nothing irks me as much as those who infiltrate that sanctuary with hare-brained schemes, snake-oil remedies or fantastic opportunities that many secular and professional experts will ditch before they have heard the second word of that pitch.
Warning bells
Recently, a friend was about to be roped into some of those marketing opportunities to sell products that would enhance the performance of cars. The first thing that jumped out me was that it had come from relation of hers through another church member; that was the first warning bell.
Then none of the people down that chain were car propeller-heads, none would have been able to understand the jargon that followed the test results to sell the products to other car and performance enthusiasts; the second warning sign.
A quick search on Google threw up a number of questionable inferences to the whole scheme being a swindle; the company being unscrupulous and recruits running into difficulty; the third warning sign.
Be wary enough not to touch them
That was a cursory observation and a basic Internet search revealing enough evidence to show that this endeavour was one to give a wide berth; a Multi-Level Marketing scheme, which could easily be a Ponzi scheme too. [Wikipedia]
The Federal Trade Commission says, “Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate. Some are pyramid schemes. It's best not to get involved in plans where the money you make is based primarily on the number of distributors you recruit and your sales to them, rather than on your sales to people outside the plan who intend to use the products.” I will say, NEVER get involved.
The problem however is not that these schemes exist but that people get taken advantage of through the affiliations, affinities, associations, groups, communities or relationships they belong to.
Vulnerability in numbers
Belonging to any grouping confers a modicum of implicit trust, like herd immunity; this bond is more pronounced in settings like churches or tribal gatherings. Your guard is let down because you believe no one will exploit that setting for gain at your expense; you feel you are immune to infection because you believe everyone else is vaccinated and therefore not vulnerable.
The truth is; these gatherings are where we should be the most alert, because transactions in these places do not have the kind of scrutiny and standards that are necessary if conducted in a proper business setting.
The love of money in the church
I read this morning where leadership in a church had roped in members for a real estate scheme that went awry for reasons one could attribute to changes in campus leadership, improper handovers and greed. [PMNews]
The moment the membership were convinced and had ploughed into the project, with the huge amounts involved, a certain cohort illegally wrest control of the project from the purvey of the church and began operating a Ponzi scheme making promises, taking deposits but providing no evidence of how moneys were spent or what progress was being made.
The participants were instructed never to involve the press and it is possible they were strongly advised to resolve the disputes within the church. I say, only believe your church leaders in their core vocations – preaching, NOT business.
Closing ranks in the church
When the church hierarchy got involved, it was a damage-limitation exercise of appeasement rather than getting the law enforcement involved, meanwhile, the cosy setting of fellowship, community, church and trust was being eroded and the reputation of the church was receiving a battering, all because of the love of money.
Having been masochists for long enough at the mercy of those who defrauded them, they called in the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC); one hopes all moneys will be returned, though some have received refunds, but most pertinently, those involved must be arraigned, charged and punished for fraud.
Affinity Fraud
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) calls this Affinity Fraud, this “refers to investment scams that prey upon members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities, the elderly, or professional groups.
The SEC offers the following key points of advice:
Check out everything - no matter how trustworthy the person seems who brings the investment opportunity to your attention.
Do not fall for investments that promise spectacular profits or "guaranteed" returns.
Be sceptical of any investment opportunity that is not in writing. [Even if it is in writing, is it legally binding and admissible as a contractual document in court?]
Do not be pressured or rushed into buying an investment before you have a chance to think about - or investigate - the “opportunity”.
Fraudsters are increasingly using the Internet to target particular groups through e-mail spams. [The honest truth is more are caught out in their churches, amongst family or friends and people you think you know well.]
You might belong in any of these groups
Of the 11 examples of Affinity Fraud cases that the SEC presents as examples, you see five church-related events, two senior citizens groups, African-Americans, Koreans, Armenian-Americans and so on.
Be on the watch out for this kind of arrangement:
“The fraudsters allegedly sold members non-existent “prime bank” trading programs by using a sales pitch heavily laden with Biblical references and by enlisting members of the church communities to unwittingly spread the word about the bogus investment.”
Other fraudulent activity is where the organisation engages you in voluntary work for these outside interests on the premise that you are working for a greater purpose; you put in the hours and the sweat for no reward, whereas it is a for-profit business benefitting the leadership alone.
Do your research well
This is not to say there are no good business opportunities out there, but do your utmost to verify everything before you put your money in it.
Ask difficult questions, get satisfactory answers, do not allow the purveyors to blackmail you or abuse your trust with the affinity they share with you – in the end, only part with money you are able to lose without losing your health and welfare.
Additional advice from the Wikipedia Multi-Level Marketing scheme page follows, with my comments in brackets.
Find — and study — the company’s track record. [Do a Google Search.]
Learn about the product. [What is the market, how can you sell, what are the competing claims and why have mainstream companies not seen this opportunity too?]
Ask questions. [Ask silly questions if you must, but always obtain intelligent answers you can further research on.]
Understand any restrictions. [There are usually many and never to your benefit.]
Talk to other distributors (beware of shills) [Shills are people planted to give the impression that the deal is good, they are in on the game to rope you in.]
Consider using a friend or adviser as a neutral sounding board or for a gut check. [Always seek some professional help completely outside that affinity group.]
Take your time [It can wait, do not be rushed into what might become rash decisions you will soon regret.]
Think about whether this plan suits your talents and goals. [If it is not your field of expertise, what are you taking into it to convince others of what you plan to do?]
Other Affinity Scams


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