My vision for my “Beyond the Bars” columns was to write about faithful responses to a very broken criminal justice system.
Yet, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum last week, and this seems like a good venue to discuss it.
A pastor called me; he was very excited about an offer he had received from a fellow pastor to share the gospel in a foreign land at a conference.
Scam was the last thing on his mind, but it still was on his mind, so he thought of the most cynical lawyer whom he knew and asked me to check into it.
Before long, it became obvious to both of us that someone was committing, as my evidence professor used to say, acts of moral turpitude.
Many different laws (state, federal and international) apply to these situations, but catching folks who use bits and bytes for addresses and aliases when they shake your hand is just plain hard.
Warning folks is at least as important. That’s why I want to use this forum to spread the word on just another twist on a centuries-old scam, in other words, pay me a little and you’ll get a lot.
Allow me some background room here.
Internet scams are white-collar crime. White-collar crime (that’s one way to classify this thing academically) uses familiar patterns.
A behavioral approach to these crimes tells us that they involve:
- An offender who has legitimate access to victims
- A physical separation between the offender and the victim
- The superficial appearance of legitimacy
- The techniques of deception, abuse of trust and / or concealment and conspiracy
Pastors communicate with each other all of the time. Check box 1.
The offender set the stage in another country, to add a layer of unfamiliarity (and adventure). Check box 2.
The introductory email contained links to an elaborate website, filled with pictures of seemingly real people, real addresses, signs and symbols of faith, and normal web page headings and content to gain the victim’s confidence. Check box 3.
The perpetrator used the cross, our faith, our goodwill, the church and our desire to share the gospel to entice his victim. Deception, abuse of trust and concealment. Check box 4.
Here’s the hook. The perpetrator offered to pay airfare, lodging, incidentals and an exorbitant honorarium for my client, including a “plus 1” for the whole trip.
All that my client had to do was to procure a work visa, with which the offender offhandedly offered to help if things didn’t go smoothly.
As the story went, that was the first thing that had to be done before the first partial honorarium payment could be paid because the offender had been burned before by a pastor taking that first payment and then not showing up.
One problem with that whole story is that this country does not require a work visa for a pastor to speak at a conference.
We never sent any money because we scouted out this scam well in advance, even communicating with a real pastor in that foreign land.
The help in procuring the work visa would have cost my client some money, no doubt wired to an untraceable account in Grand Cayman (just my speculation there).
Remember that this guy or gal (who knows?) is masquerading as Pastor Dogooder, a caring shepherd to his home congregation and volunteer moderator and organizer of the conference.
The assurance offered by the perpetrator was meant to create trust and confidence on the victim’s part (hence the term, “con man”).
The gory details are unimportant because by the publication of this article, Pastor Dogooder will have changed the website, his name and so on.
It’s the gist of the scam that’s important: (i) we’ve learned about your wonderful ministry, (ii) please come speak to us overseas, (iii) we’ll pay you (iv) and we’ll help you navigate through those sordid visa details.
Just send us a small check and this bigger check will be yours, beloved pastor.
Jesus speaks to this scam in Matthew 10:16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
I so long for the day when I don’t have to walk that line between shrewdness and innocence. Those qualities don’t seem to co-exist easily here on earth, and it wears down my soul.
Until that day, though, when we all can be as fully sheep and doves as we ever can, be on your guard. Remember the Latin imperative, “Cave pastorem!” (Pastors beware!).
If you tend toward innocence, find someone in your congregation who tends toward shrewdness; crosscheck and double-check every detail of any unsolicited emails from Pastor Dogooder. And, above all, don’t send any money to anyone volunteering to help you with a work visa.
David Balkum is a lawyer, author, professor, husband, father, prison volunteer and member of Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.