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Michelle Singletary

‘Affinity fraud’ hits us when we’re at our most trusting

Robert “Dr. Shine” Freeman, a Maryland minister, took the command “let us pray” and turned it into “let us prey.”

Because that’s what he did. He preyed on his people.

Prosecutors said Freeman, 56, hid assets to avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts. He pleaded guilty recently to obstructing bankruptcy court proceedings and received a 27-month prison sentence. He was ordered to pay more than $630,000 in restitution to four church members who took out loans to purchase cars and a mansion.

What Freeman did falls under “affinity fraud.” Affinity fraud is when people use a personal connection such as religion or ethnic status to gain people’s trust and their money.

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Nearly one in four Ponzi schemes involve the use of affinity-group targets, according to a study by consulting firm Marquet International of major US Ponzi schemes since 2002. The three most common affinity groups targeted by Ponzi schemers, accounting for 85 percent of such cases, were the elderly or retired, religious groups, and ethnic groups, respectively.

The people who try to fight affinity fraud will tell you it’s a hard scam to prevent. Typically people are told if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

But when that too-good-to-be-true deal or request is coming from someone you trust or is being endorsed by a person you respect, you put your guard down. You suspend common sense. And this opens you to becoming a victim.

After Freeman’s sentencing, I asked readers what they thought about his actions. Many of their responses provide some guidance that can help fight affinity fraud.

“I’m a pastor of a small church in Maine,” wrote Franklin Anderson of Limerick, Maine. “I think that the church is in part responsible for inadequate supervision of its accounts and its pastor. Under no circumstances am I allowed to borrow money from parishioners, or accept personal gifts or loans more than $25 from parishioners. Doing so is a conflict of interest. I could not serve my parishioners impartially and equally. And it would be taking advantage of their trust in me by virtue of my being their pastor for my personal gain.”

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Freeman used his church members, in the name of Jesus, to get what he couldn’t afford.

Every time you hear about one of these cases, remind yourself that having trust and faith doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an abundance of skepticism.


Michelle Singletary writes for the Washington Post.