Tag Archives: affinity fraud

What is Affinity Fraud?

At the beginning of Side 3 of Grand Funk Railroad’s 1970 Live Album, Mark Farner shirtlessly tells the audience this (edited for clarity):

Brothers and sisters, there people out there that look just like you, or maybe your brother…but they’re not. And when they hand you something, don’t take it. Don’t take it, okay?

Now, Mark was referring to the kind of party supplies that might circulate at a rock concert in 1970, but he also could have been talking about affinity fraud almost fifty years later.

Affinity fraud targets people who are members of a group, and uses that group identity to lure victims into the scam. Some of the most common targets are religious groups or church members, people with a shared ethnicity, or those who have served in the military. The con artist will be a member of the targeted group, or will claim to be, and attempt to recruit others to help bring in more victims.

Generally, these scams take the form of phony investments or Ponzi schemes.

There are a variety of ways to identify affinity fraud. Here are a few things to look for:

Is the person offering the investment using membership in your group as his “in?”

A shared identity can be a great way to build community, but remember that the human tendency to trust those we see as similar to ourselves can be used against us. Just because someone claims to be a member of your group doesn’t mean they are. There is no physical barrier to lying; “I’m the same as you” can be uttered by anyone, whether it’s true or not.

Are the investment materials (brochures, flyers, etc.) filled with symbols or phrases familiar to your group?

A con artist targeting members of a church might festoon his written information with symbols or scripture (some even go so far as to imply that the “opportunity” has been sent from above). On the other hand, a scammer going after veterans might use flags, ribbons or eagles. Humans are emotional, and we respond strongly to symbols, but be cautious around any kind of investment offer that seems to be hitting those symbols a little too hard.

 Are the promised returns extremely high, or is the investment presented as guaranteed or having little-to-no risk?

Real investments carry risk. There is always a non-zero chance you will lose some or all of your initial investment. An investment presented as “risk-free” or “guaranteed” is always going to turn out to be a scam, because that’s not how investing works. Any investment promising double-digit returns is to be taken with a grain of salt.

Do the returns hinge on you recruiting others into the fold?

That’s a Ponzi scheme. You will lose all of your money.

Is the broker licensed to sell investments?

Never invest through an unlicensed broker. Whatever your (or your group’s) opinion of regulations, licensing requirements, or government in general, anyone selling investments without a license to do so is breaking the law. What other laws is this person willing to break? What about the ones that make stealing illegal? And don’t fall for excuses like, “I’m not licensed because the government doesn’t want your group to have access to this amazing opportunity,” either. That’s just someone stoking your emotions to goad you into action.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has a nice PDF available for download that goes into more detail about affinity fraud and how to report it to the SEC.

(However, it doesn’t contain a single reference to Grand Funk Railroad. You gotta read my articles for those.)

One Easy Rule for Avoiding Investment Fraud

I read about a phony investment scam recently. This one didn’t even have the sophistication of a pyramid or Ponzi scheme. The pitch basically consisted of this: “Give us $800 now, and later you’ll get up to $3,000 for being an early investor.”

I’m not even sure how much detail it went into beyond that.

And sure, it’s easy to spot such an obvious scam…from the outside. But real people fell for it. There was something about the approach that sounded appealing and legitimate. I say it all the time: nobody is 100% immune to fraud.

Still, I wasn’t going to write a whole article about this particular scheme because there really wasn’t anything to write about, but it did make me think, “Is there some kind of basic rule that people can use to filter out schemes like this?” The victims were approached with an (alleged) investment opportunity that sounded good, sent their money, and never got a dime back.

And there it was: they were approached.

They weren’t looking for something to invest in. Somebody approached the victims, out of the blue, with the promise of large, guaranteed returns.

Large, guaranteed returns are suspicious enough, but think about how investing really works in the real world: unless you’re a venture capitalist, nobody is ever going to simply approach you out of nowhere with something to invest in. If you want to invest for profit, you’ve got to find your own opportunities. You can hire a firm to help, or strike out on your own, but there’s never really been a case where, “Hey stranger, give me money and I guarantee you’ll get all of it back, many times over, in return” has turned out to be a legitimate offer. People don’t just share money with strangers. They don’t even share it with friends most of the time.

So here’s your one easy rule:

Be very suspicious of any investment opportunity where you did not initiate contact.

This touches on affinity fraud, too, where someone will use shared membership in a group to build trust in order to sell fraudulent investments. This often happens in churches, where a member of a congregation will present materials relating to an investment that later turns out to be nothing more than a scam.

You can ask other questions, too. Is the person selling this investment licensed to do so? Does the offer make sense vis-à-vis how the world actually functions? Why are you, of all people, being given this opportunity? Are the promises being made just a little too amazing? Is the seller hitting the “I’m just like you” note a little too hard? Is there a shadowy, mysterious “they” that supposedly doesn’t want you to know about the investment? Are they talking about “guaranteed” returns?

All of these questions can help you filter out an investment scam, but if you stop at the point a stranger is making a too-good-to-be-true offer, you can avoid fraud from the outset. It doesn’t apply to every case (because nothing applies to every case), but it’s a pretty good start. If someone is presenting an out-of-the blue investment opportunity, that’s your first red flag.

Tell Your Parents: seniors lose $36 billion every year to financial fraud

image-criminal-fraud-01Jerry Seinfeld used to do a great bit about aging. The not-very-funny paraphrased version for our purposes today is that, when people get older, everything gets smaller—the meals, the houses, their bodies. Everything except the car, which just get bigger.

But there’s another thing that gets bigger as we get older, too: the target painted on our backs. The elderly lose an estimated $36.4 billion every year to fraud. That’s the size of entire sectors of the U.S. economy.

CNBC ran a story on the subject recently, and it’s worth a read. The important thing is to stay involved in your parents’ lives and talk to them about the realities of financial fraud and the fact that they will be seen as marks simply because of their age.

Greasy telemarketers, lottery scams, the old “grandchild in danger” telephone scam, get-rich-quick schemes (Iraqi dinar and Vietnamese dong currency peddlers, I’m looking at you), phony investments and affinity fraud (where the scammer uses affiliation with a church or other organization to appear trustworthy)—all of these target the elderly. It’s important to talk to your older family members and friends about the dangers, and take action where needed.

Additional resources are listed below: