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Fraud Squad



Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on the LDS Church. That was the message in the report last week that LDS Church members are easy marks for con artists.

According to U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner, LDS Church leaders shy away from involvement in their members’ financial dealings, even though most of the victims had their first encounter with the perpetrator in a church setting.

It’s not like the church hasn’t known what’s going on. A similar story Dec. 6, 2001 spoke of Utah County as a hotbed for white-collar crime. LDS members, the story said, are easy targets for “affinity fraud,” explained as the taking advantage of one church member by another. A cursory search turns up many such stories.

This is a conservative state, and conservatives take pride in being responsible with money. Yet fraud runs rampant here. Utah leads the nation in bankruptcies, and hardly a day goes by without a new report on a confidence scheme that has cost some hapless citizen his life’s savings.

As I considered the implications of this, I recalled an incident when I was home from college for Christmas. My best friend growing up was a Mormon kid named Jon Berbert, and during that visit Jon’s father visited and spoke to me for several hours about the LDS Church. In the end I was not converted, but what I most readily recall was his description of a sense of well-being the church provided him. He made it sound like the security blanket carried by Peanuts’ Schroeder.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that trusting people are most easily taken advantage of. But it must be noted that it is not, generally speaking, people outside the church doing the defrauding. It is other church members. The security blanket has holes in it.

LDS Church members won’t say it, because they are reluctant to criticize their leadership, but it is time that leadership took a hard look at a culture that fosters such naiveté and acknowledges the problem. Perhaps if LDS members awoke to the fact that their fellow members can be as duplicitous as anyone else, Utahns as a whole might begin to see each other in a different light.

A dose of reality would do some good, helping non-Mormons see Mormons as less insular. Mormons, meanwhile, might see the rest of us as more like themselves. After all, anyone who claims to be too good to be true probably is.

In other parts of this country with a strong religious presence, such as the Bible Belt, there is less tension between the secular and religious parts of society, because there is a commonly accepted version of reality, which can perhaps be best described as a general acceptance of human weakness.

In Utah, there are competing visions of reality. When one intrudes on another, and LDS members see that they are really not so different from other people, an opportunity is created to find common ground.