Reprinted From The Christian Chronicle, May 1985
Churches of Christ are “sitting ducks” for professional confidence artists.
That’s the word from a man who says he has conned churches of $1 million.
Last month, in a rare glimpse into the world of extortion, an ex-convict talked about big-time benevolence fraud among churches of Christ.
A nation-wide telephone scam, revealed in March by Central Telephone Company officials, showed hundreds of churches of Christ have been bilked out of thousands of dollars earmarked for the needy.
After reading about the scheme in the March issue of the Chronicle, a man who identified himself as John Swain, called reporters to offer information.
For more than nine years Swain said he worked with a ring of professionals who specialized in church and charity fraud. Eventually he was sent to prison where he came in contact with Bible study materials and where he became a Christian, he said.
Swain, who was released less than six months ago, estimates he fraudulently collected more than $8W,000 from churches. Now he says he wants the church “to be aware of the problem and help dry up their (criminals’) sources.”
“I am very impressed by John,” said Dan Smith, a church leader in Reno, Nev. “I suggested he contact the Chronicle because he has an important story to tell. ” Shortly after his prison release, Swain lived with Smith for a brief time.
“There is no way I can notify all the different places where I did things that were wrong, that I’m a Christian now, and I’m sorry,” said Swain.
He believes Christians do not realize “how organized and professional some con games have become.” For nine years he said he was involved with a ring of 20-30 individuals who met every three months for an extensive planning session. Swain said the group continues to meet.
“They plot out the next three months, assign every con an area to work in, decide what churches will be hit, and what con they will use.”
Although several denominations and charities are regularly victimized, “churches of Christ are among the easiest and most susceptible to conning because they are so independent of each other,” said Swain. “Most of them don’t even make a phone call to check with each other.”
According to Swain, professional confidence men develop extensive files on church groups: names of congregational leaders; lectureship dates; lists of brotherhood personalities; names of administrators of Christian colleges, even information on current issues.
“They don’t miss a trick,” he said.
Armed with an extensive knowledge of the church, a polished and persuasive manner, they go after churches and are often successful.
Swain said confidence artists not only tailor their spiel to the church they are working, but they also “make seasonable adjustments in the amount of their requests.”
After tax season, money is tight, so they ask for less and increase the volume of calls. However, Swain said, during the holiday season “nobody asks questions. They can easily got $400 to $500 from a single church.”
Swain believes benevolence workers should be careful about references that are eagerly offered.
“Lots of times cons will go to the trouble of finding out when certain individuals are on vacation. Then they will give those names as references, knowing they can’t be reached.
“I think churches should also beware when people start throwing around names of people all over the brotherhood,” said Swain. “That is a tip-off they may be pulling a con.”
Another trick used by professionals is automatic call forwarding used to redirect a church’s call to a crony who then plays the part of the reference.
“Our group found out they could work several churches of Christ-even in the same town-and not got caught,” said Swain.
“I just wish churches would learn to call each other because people with good intentions are throwing away millions,” Swain said.
According to Swain, professionals have modernized their operations. Computer are now used to keep track of their “schemes and responses so there won’t be any doubling up.”
“These people are so shrewd . . . but we could make it more difficult for them if we would take the time to check with other churches,” Swain said.
– Joy L. McMillion
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 12, p. 372
June 20, 1985