Preying on the Prayful

Being swindled in an investment scam can be bad enough. But being conned by someone of one's religious community can be a test of faith.

With more Americans becoming minicapitalists, investment fraud that exploits the trust and innocence of church members has boomed. In the past three years, scammers using religious rhetoric have taken advantage of at least 90,000 investors, stealing more than $1.8 billion, according to authorities in 27 states. That's up more than fivefold in a decade.

The latest example of "religious affinity fraud" came in Florida, where a couple with the Greater Ministries International Church were sentenced this week for swindling $578 million from some 20,000 investors.

Sharing beliefs does not always mean sharing trust, prosecutors and securities regulators warn. They advise investors to check with state regulators to see if an investment seller is registered, to ask for written assurances, and to seek a second opinion from another broker. The most common fraud uses Ponzi schemes, in which money from new investors is used to make payments to earlier investors. Newer schemes have become more sophisticated.

Spiritual seekers need to be "as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves," still loving one another, but with plenty of (Wall) street smarts.

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