The #Me Too phenomenon is just one of the latest instances of a type of fraud featuring a betrayal of trust by a fellow community member which is as old as humanity itself. The ACFE calls it affinity fraud, and it is one of the most common instances of fraud with which any CFE or forensic account is ever called upon to deal. The poster boy for affinity frauds in our time is, of course, Bernard L. Madoff, whose affinity fraud and Ponzi scheme ended with his arrest in 2008. The Madoff scandal is considered an affinity fraud because the vast majority of his clientele shared Madoff’s religion, Judaism. Over the years, Madoff’s clientele grew to include prominent persons in the entertainment industry, including Steven Spielberg and Larry King. This particular affinity fraud was unprecedented because it was perpetrated by Madoff over several decades, and his investment customers were defrauded of approximately twenty billion dollars.
But not all targets of affinity fraud are wealthy investors; such scams touch all genders, religions, age groups, races, statuses, and educational levels. One of the saddest are affinity frauds targeting children and the elderly.
Con artists prey on vulnerable underage targets by luring them to especially designed websites and phone Aps and then collecting their personal information. TRUSTe, an Internet privacy seal program, is a safe harbor program under the terms of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) administered by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. This was the third safe harbor application approved by the Commission. Safe harbor Aps and programs are submitted by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARL) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, an arm of the advertising industry’s self-regulatory program, and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which were both previously approved as COPPA safe harbors. Sadly, in spite of all this effort, data collection abuses by websites and Aps targeting children continue to increase apace to this day.
Then there’s the elderly. It’s an unfortunate fact that elderly individuals are the most frequent targets of con artists implementing all types of affinity frauds. Con artists target the elderly, since they may be lonely, are usually willing to listen, and are thought to be more trusting that younger individuals. Many of these schemes are performed over the telephone, door-to-door, or through advertisements. The elderly are especially vulnerable targets for schemes related to credit cards, sweepstakes or contests, charities, health products, magazines, home improvements, equity skimming, investments, banking or wire transfers, and insurance.
Fraudsters will use different tactics to get the elderly to cooperate in their schemes. They can be friendly, sympathetic, and willing to help in some cases, and use fear tactics in others. The precise tactics used are generally tailored to the type of individual situation the con artist finds herself in in relation to the mark.
Ethically challenged fraud practitioners frequently focus on home ownership related schemes to take advantage of the vulnerable elderly. The scammer will recommend a “friend” that can perform necessary home repairs at a reasonable price. This friend may require the mark to sign a document upon completion confirming that the repairs have been completed. In some cases, the elderly victim later learns that s/he signed the title of his house over to the repairman. In other cases, not only is the person overcharged for the work, but the work is not performed properly or at all.
Another frequent scheme targeting the elderly involves sweepstakes or prizes. The fraudster continues to influence the elderly victim over a period of time with the hope that the victim will eventually win the “grand prize” if they will just send in another fee or buy a few more magazines.
Fraudsters also frequently solicit the elderly with “great” investment opportunities in precious metals, artwork, securities, prime bank guarantees, futures, exotics, micro-cap stocks, penny stocks, promissory notes, pyramid and Ponzi schemes, insurance, and real estate. Other common scams involve equity skimming programs, debt consolidation offers, or other debt relief services which only result in the loss of the home used as collateral if the victimized debtor misses a payment.
The societal effects of affinity fraud are not limited solely to the amount of funds lost by investors, churches, the elderly or by other types of victims. Once these frauds are uncovered, investor confidence can diminish the financial and other legitimate markets, and a general level of distrust can decrease the government’s ability to provide protection. Loss of confidence manifested itself after the Madoff fiasco with such negative effects evident throughout the economy. Unfortunately, affinity fraud erodes the trust needed for legitimate investments to occur and grow our economy. Essentially, affinity fraud victims of all types become less likely to trust any future monetary request and honest charitable organizations suffer from a loss of endowments. Subsequent to a large affinity fraud being discovered, time is spent by regulators and law enforcement not only prosecuting these cases but also in the expenditure of endless taxpayer dollars assessing what went wrong. Time consuming, expensive investigations generally also include implementation of regulatory changes in an attempt to assist in detection of these frauds in the future, another costly burden on taxpayers.
Once affinity fraud offenders have targeted a community or group, they seek out respected community leaders to vouch for them to potential victims. By having an esteemed figurehead who appears to be knowledgeable about the investment or other opportunity and endorses it, the offender creates legitimacy for the con. Additionally, others in the community are less likely to ask questions about a venture or investment if a community leader recommends or endorses the fraudster. In the Madoff case, Madoff himself was a highly esteemed member of the community he victimized.
Experts tells us that projection bias is one reason why affinity fraudsters are able to continually perpetrate these types of crimes. Psychological projection is a concept introduced by Freud to explain the unconscious transference of a person’s own characteristics onto another person. The victims in affinity fraud cases project their own morals onto the fraudsters, presuming that the criminals are honest and trustworthy. However, the similarities are almost certainly the reason why the fraudster targeted the victims in the first place. In some cases when victims are interviewed after the fact, they indicate to law enforcement that they trusted the fraudster as if they were a family member because they believed that they both shared the same value system.
Because victims in affinity frauds are less likely to question or go outside of their group for assistance, information or tips regarding the fraud may not ever reach regulators or law enforcement. In religion related cases, there is often an unwritten rule that what happens in church stays there, with disputes handled by the church elders or the minister. Once the victims place their trust in the fraudster, they are less likely to even believe they have been defrauded and also unlikely to investigate the con.
The ACFE tells us that in order to stop affinity frauds from occurring in the first place, one of the best fraud prevention tools is the implementation of increased educational efforts. Education is especially important in geographical areas where tight-knit cultural communities reside who are particularly vulnerable to these frauds. By reaching out to the same cultural or religious leaders that fraudsters often target in their schemes, law enforcement could launch collaborative relationships with these groups in their educational efforts.
In summary, frauds like Madoff’s occur daily on a much smaller scale in communities across the United States. The effects of these affinity frauds are widespread, and the emotional consequences experienced by the victims of these scams cannot be overstated. CFEs, assurance professionals, regulators and law enforcement and investigative personnel need to assess the harm caused by affinity fraud and continue to determine what steps need to be taken to effectively confront these types of scams. State and Federal laws should be reviewed and amended where necessary to ensure appropriate enhanced sentencing is enforced for all egregious crimes involving affinity fraud. Regulators and law enforcement should approach fraud cases from different angles in an attempt to determine if new methods may be more effective in their prosecution.
Additionally, anti-fraud education as provided by the ACFE is needed for both the general and investing publics and for regulators and law enforcement personnel to ensure that they all have the proper knowledge and tools to be able to understand, detect, stop, and prevent these types of scenarios. Affinity frauds are not easily anticipated by the victims because people are not naturally inclined to think that one of their own is going to cheat them. Affinity frauds can, therefore, only be most effectively curtailed by the very communities who are their victims.