Yesterday, a writer for The Inter-Mountain, a West Virginia daily newspaper, published a warning from its state attorney general, Patrick Morrissey, that residents should be careful “not to fall prey to faith-based scams.” The article does not discuss any specific scam but quotes a general press release from Mr. Morrissey’s office regarding “affinity frauds,” where victims of financial scams are targeted through their common bond, often a religious community. The article is notable in part because it quotes Jenice L. Malecki, a New York securities lawyer from Malecki Law, who has been featured frequently in the media and on CNBC’s American Greed, where she explained how people in these communities fall victim by letting their guard down “[e]specially in affinity situations, where people feel more comfortable for one reason or another, be it a church or an ethnic community, they tend not to look as hard as they should at what’s in front of them.”
While Mr. Morrissey’s warning is important and discusses the threat of scammers from outside the community, investors should additionally be aware that victims of affinity frauds are often victimized directly by someone prominent within the community itself, often the leader or pastor of the community. For instance, the warning focuses on scams where such a leader is impersonated by someone from outside the community, where scammers “have hacked a minister’s or faith -based charity’s online account, then emailed” its victims to ask for money. Further illustrating this, the warning states that “Scammers may claim the pastor is stuck or overseas and needs gift cards sent to get home, or they could solicit funds for a project.” The SEC, however, emphasized the threat more broadly in a 2013 publication where it warned on affinity frauds how the “fraudsters who promote affinity scams frequently are – or pretend to be – members of the group.” The SEC also noted that “many affinity scams involve ‘Ponzi’ or pyramid schemes, where new investor money used to make payments to earlier investors to give the false illusion that the investment is successful.”
So investors should be aware that fraudulent schemes can come from both within the group (i.e., community leaders themselves) as well as outside the group. Ponzi schemes are still highly prevalent, and investors should be on alert and watch their investments carefully. Malecki Law has recovered millions of dollars for investors across numerous types of frauds and Ponzi schemes, including her famous representation of over 120 victims from the Bronx, New York, in the Robert Van Zandt Ponzi scheme, as well as successful, multi-million dollar recoveries in other schemes involving the imprisoned Hector May, and the Biscayne Capital fraud that victimized Latin American investors of over $155 million. Most recently, the firm filed an action against the brokerage firm Henley & Company on behalf of an investor who was victimized by the late Ponzi schemer Phil Incorvia. The lawsuit against Henley alleges that the firm effectively allowed the scheme to flourish for the last 15 years because Henley allegedly failed to properly supervise Mr. Incorvia and the office he worked out of since 2006.