DennisBeaverJune 14, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

“Want to know the easiest way of separating people from their money? Join a Church!”

That was the way “Greg” began one of the more interesting discussions I have had in recent months with a reader. Our conversation began with his e-mail, catching me at my computer. “If you have a moment, may I phone?” he asked.

Within seconds I was on the line with a self-described “Investment Con Artist” who admitted to having taken several hundred thousand dollars from dozens of “Believers” during times when “people who have saved money were upset with the low amounts of interest they were being paid by banks.”

Why did he want to speak with me, and what was the urgency I sensed in his voice?

Time is running short

“For obvious reasons, I can’t tell you where I am, but let’s just say that I used to live not far from a town where your column is widely read. I am in my mid-50s and have recently been diagnosed with a nasty form of cancer, which I accept as a payback for the things I’ve done. You know the old saying about there being no atheists in foxholes, and that applies to me. This is the first time that I have ever been serious about prayer, and confessed what I’ve done to a priest. I asked him if there is anything I can do to help lessen my sins. He suggested that I talk with a journalist. I thought of your column. Will you help me?” Greg asked.

While a bit skeptical at first, the longer we talked, Greg gave me more than enough reason to believe what he was saying, in large part because he described in detail one of his scams. As it turned out, several of his victims — also readers — wrote to You and the Law.

Appeal to trust and greed

“These are times when, for anyone fed up with getting hardly any interest on a retirement, savings, CD or other bank accounts, it is natural to look for higher returns. This is how guys like me find our victims, and a church is the ideal hunting ground. It’s the only place where trust is assumed, and you don’t have to prove a thing,” Greg related.

“Just say the Lord’s name enough, talk about values, honesty, helping your fellow human beings, and you will inspire trust. I attend services, contribute generously, always available to help any church member, and drive a nice but not flashy car. I give the impression of being financially successful, well before going to the next step in my plan,” he continued.

“That’s timing and understanding human nature. For example, years ago when interest rates were low and with a cover as a legitimate investment adviser, I casually mentioned that I was able to obtain guaranteed interest-paid-monthly-five times actual, commercial rates. It was, of course impossible, and I was running a Ponzi scheme, paying off early investors with money from people who came in later, until I had stolen most of the funds, and left town, never using my real name,” he added.

I asked Greg how it is that anyone believes they can earn 20 percent interest a month when banks are paying 3 percent yearly? “The answer is found in the Bible, Koran, or other holy books,” he replied.

“They all tell you greed is bad. Yet, this motivates even highly educated, trusting people to attempt almost any way of making oodles of money, tossing common sense right out the window. In these kinds of schemes, happy early investors — who did get that interest check — told their friends. They were my best form of advertising, and people were lining up to give me money. Of course, with every Ponzi scheme, the guy in charge — me — keeps most of the money, and few people ever ask for their entire investment back early enough, until there is no more money available. By that time, I was gone.”

Slept well at night

Greg “slept very well at night,” because he was completely aware of who and what he is.

“I am what psychologists call a sociopath. This was diagnosed when I was a kid. We tend to be highly intelligent people with good communications skills, likeable, but do not have a sense of morality or a conscience. Life for a sociopath is finding the easiest way of getting your hands on money, while seeming to be honest and trustworthy. Normal relationships are not part of our world. You do not care about anyone else, unless it benefits your own personal financial or physical security,” he explained.

Advice for my readers

I felt there was more to Greg’s story than seeking a free pass into heaven, and told him that. He agreed. “Something also motivated me to speak with you. Smaller cities and towns are dangerous places for honest people with people like me around. My mom — now in her 80s — was taken to the tune of $30,000 by someone just like me. Seeing her grief was something of a wake-up call, and I figured that with the little time remaining I have, why not do something good,” was his answer.

We ended our conversation with one more question I had for him. “Beyond a story, which I will write, is there anything else you would like from me?” There was.

“I need a good lawyer. Do you know a good criminal attorney close to Sacramento?”

Even if I did, I’d never tell him.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.