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Invest cautiously, LDS urged

Church says members are encouraged to study offers

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is responding to observations by federal investigators that church members are easy targets for Ponzi schemes and church leaders need to take proactive action to prevent it.

In a prepared statement, church spokesman Dale Bills said members are urged to be cautious and to carefully scrutinze financial offers like those that prompted several indictments this past week.

Friday, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI and a number of other agencies announced indictments against seven people who bilked hundreds of Utahns out of nearly $100 million by getting them to invest in programs that promised high returns.

While Ponzi schemes are nothing unique to Utah, federal investigators said the trusting nature of most Utahns makes them prime targets.

"One inescapable observation of the prosecutors and FBI agents investigating these frauds is the overwhelming number of victims whose first encounter with the fraudulent solicitor is at a church or religious event, specifically the (LDS Church)," U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner and FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Chip Burrus said in a joint statement.

Both Warner and Burrus noted that, "Solicitors also take advantage of the fact that LDS Church leaders are generally reluctant to get involved in the financial affairs of their members."

A spokesman for the LDS Church responded to those comments late Friday in a brief prepared statement.

"While the church is not commenting on the details raised in (Friday's) press conference, church leaders as a matter of principle have repeatedly taught members to be honest and prudent in their financial dealings. Members are encouraged to analyze financial opportunities on their own merits and not invest solely on the personal recommendation of a friend, neighbor, relative or fellow church member," Bills said.

Investigators call high investment, get-rich-quick schemes the "crime of the century." While they are not as violent or visible as a robbery or homicide, Warner said white collar crimes are destroying people's lives.

"These people have had their dreams stolen," he said. "For the elderly they've had their peace of mind stolen."

Burrus added that white collar criminals are just as devious as other criminals, if not more.

"These people, when they wake up, think about how they're going to take your money," he said.

While the elderly have traditionally been the main targets for high investment schemes, federal investigators Friday said doctors, law enforcers and even lawyers are the ones falling victim to today's big money rip-off.

Warner said additional Ponzi schemes are being investigated and more indictments will likely be handed down in the future.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com