A recent news event dramatically underscores the necessity of heeding counsel from Church authorities to beware of and avoid unwise investment schemes.
As reported Aug. 19 in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the FBI said it broke up a fraud ring operating out of Ocean Beach and Mission Valley, Calif., in which more than 100 victims in Utah, Texas and Idaho were bilked out of $20 million to $50 million by perpetrators, the newspaper reported, and in some cases investors were promised annual returns of 100 percent for 99 years.
When examined more closely, a couple of prominent danger signs can be detected from this scam, points which ought to stir suspicion.
For one thing, it promised an exorbitant and unrealistic return on investment, the classic "get-rich-quick" scheme that Church leaders have so often warned against.
Moreover, it allegedly preyed upon the the religious devotions of the unsuspecting, a factor that in the past has lured many an unwary soul, particularly among our own people, into a web of financial ruin. It is reported that despite claims to the contrary, the suspects in this case had no connection to the Church. In past instances, though, unscrupulous individuals have abused relationships of trust by capitalizing on their own Church affiliations, current or past callings and use of familiar religious terminology and concepts to dupe unwary victims. Some have exploited religious belief among Church members by holding out the prospect that one's investment in the questionable scheme will enable him to pay more in tithing, fund children's mission expenses or have more leisure time to spend with family.
As was noted once in an article warning against such investments: "If someone asks you to pray about the investment he is promoting, keep your hand on your wallet while your eyes are closed." (Church News, May 15, 1982, p.5.)
Latter-day Saints, of course, are not the only ones occasionally victimized through misplaced trust; the phenomenon is common enough that it has come to be known by the name affinity fraud. But Church members might be particularly susceptible because they are taught to regard one another as brothers and sisters in the gospel.
It would be unfortunate indeed if we allowed our apprehensions to diminish the unity and mutual love we should have as a people. At the same time, in any matter involving our resources we need to apply the Savior's injunction to be "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16; see also Doctrine and Covenants 111:11).
Ways of defrauding people are legion today and include e-mail scams, telemarketing fraud, pyramid schemes, employment promises, identity theft, business ventures and old-fashioned street scams. They have much in common, and a few stock rules always apply: Be skeptical about claims that seem too good to be true; don't make decisions under pressure; learn all you can before investing; seek sound advice from experts, including government consumer protection agencies. Above all, pray for and live worthy of the spiritual gift of discernment.
In that regard, we should continually examine our own hearts to see if we are following gospel teachings to the point that we can claim the blessings of spiritual and temporal safety promised to those who stand in holy places (see Doctrine and Covenants 45:32).
On Sinai, the Lord commanded, "Thou shalt not covet" (Exodus 20:17). Inordinate focus on wealth and material possessions, which in some cases leaves one vulnerable to fraudulent schemes, is a violation of this commandment. In that, it is akin to gambling. Both, to some degree, involve the lust for gain without providing a commensurate offer in return. Such an attitude is hostile to the character traits of thrift and industry and destructive to the soul.
"Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you," the Master enjoined (Matthew 6:33). Seeking righteousness includes earnestly obeying commandments and following godly counsel, trusting in the Lord to provide for us in His wisdom according to our needs.