DennisBeaverJanuary 14, 2017 • By Dennis Beaver

“Mr. Beaver, I remember one of your articles that ran several years ago where you had the most extraordinary conversation with a con artist. He would join a church and swindle congregation members in a Ponzi scheme, using religion and trust.

“My elderly mother is on the verge of  ‘investing’ her life savings with a member of our congregation who is promising impossibly huge, monthly returns. I have the creepiest feelings about this guy. Mom loves your column, and I’m sure that if you can find the story and your editors agree to run it again, she and others will read it and hopefully not proceed further.”

We found that story.

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

That’s how “Greg” began one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever had. Our conversation began with his email, 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 “church investment con artist” admitting to having stolen several hundred thousand dollars from dozens of “Believers” during times when “people who have saved money were upset with the low rates of interest they were paid by banks.”

But why did he want to speak with me?

“I have recently been diagnosed with a nasty form of cancer, which I accept as 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, confessed what I’ve done to a priest and asked if there is anything I can do to help lessen my sins. He reads your column and said to call you.”

Skeptical at first, the longer we talked, Greg gave me more than enough reasons to believe him, 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.

“The only place where trust is assumed, and you don’t have to prove a thing, is church, any religion. That’s where I go hunting for people fed up with low interest on retirement, savings, CD or other bank accounts, wanting much higher returns.” he began.

“I inspire trust by saying the Lord’s name often, talking about values, honesty, helping others, always being available, and by driving a car that is nice but not flashy. I give the impression of financial success well before going to the next step in my plan based on understanding human nature and timing.

“Appearing to be a legitimate investment adviser, I offered a ‘Guaranteed Interest Product — Paid Monthly — Five Times Commercial Rates,” of course impossible, as it was a Ponzi scheme. Early investors were paid 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.

“How can someone believe they can earn 20 percent interest a month when banks are paying almost nothing?” I asked.

“Every religion states that greed is bad, but even highly educated, trusting people will toss common sense out the window when happy, early investors — receiving those interest checks — tell their friends who then line up to give me money. It’s insane!

“Of course, with every Ponzi, 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’m gone.”

Greg “slept very well,” because he was completely aware of who and what he is, having “been diagnosed a sociopath as a kid,” he admitted, adding, “We are highly intelligent, likeable, have good communications skills, but lack morality or a conscience. To me, life was finding the easiest way of getting my hands on money, while seeming to be honest and trustworthy.

“I never really cared about anyone else, unless I benefitted financial.”

“Smaller cities and towns are dangerous places for honest people with people like me around. Once someone highly credible in the church or affinity group buys in, like sheep, others will follow. My advice to your readers is to do a background check, but no one ever did!

“I never held a license to sell financial instruments! People believed because they needed to believe that someone had the secret to get them more money. Greed costs,” he concluded.

Perhaps houses of worship need a flashing sign: Warning! This Place May Be Dangerous to Your Financial Health.

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