Pope Francis recently said, “Be careful! Beware of someone who is sly or sneaky who tells you that you need to pay. Salvation cannot be bought.” He was warning us that scam artists use faith as a source of income.

We must always be on guard against people that use emotion and desperation as tools to take our worldly possessions. Fear that the world is about to end can make the promise of a first class ticket to heaven very profitable.

Church Scams can range from pocketing a portion of the collection plate to creating a cult, but they all rely on building trust. A good scam artist knows that this emotional tie to a seemingly trustworthy person will overcome the victim’s doubts. And who seems more trustworthy than someone praising the Word of God or “ministering” to other parishioners who want to better themselves and their family by going to church?

The “Affinity Church Scam” is the most common con in places of worship. Con artists pretend to share the beliefs of the congregation but they prey on people’s desire for salvation. Sometimes an impassioned minister convinces the congregation to give their wealth to the church to ensure passage into heaven. He or she quotes the Bible, “It is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” Creating fear and guilt is a way to collect wealth far beyond what is needed to maintain and run a church. In Hawai‘i, some people have signed over their homes for the guarantee that they will enter the pearly gates.

The “Sob-Story Church Scam” is another ruse used to take money from soft-hearted people. This scam works on sympathy. A fellow churchgoer, usually new to the congregation, seems to fall on hard times and needs money. Their story will pull at the heartstrings (and purse strings) of merciful church members.

Avoid becoming a victim to church scams by using the same methods we advise to research charities. Make sure the money used is for aid. Church elders should verify that the financial need is real, and that donations will support a legitimate cause. Be careful! If you are giving money out of fear of damnation or in the hope of getting something in return (like salvation), your donation is not really a gift, but a bribe. Remember, there is no lay-a-way plan for heaven.

To report suspected elder abuse, contact the Elder Abuse Unit at:
808-768-7536  |  ElderAbuse@honolulu.gov