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‘Affinity fraud’ robs us of more than just money

SHARE ‘Affinity fraud’ robs us of more than just money

The deception must have been as startling as a heavy, early spring Utah snowstorm after a week of warm, sunny days.

The woman who had been lured into investing $400,000 in a worthless scheme concocted by Ogden businessman Val Southwick reacted in a way that must have echoed the feelings of a lot of his victims.

"How can you sleep at night?" The Associated Press reported her saying as she confronted him outside the court.

How, indeed. Contrary to commercials for caffeine-laced soft-drinks that urge people to "Wake up!", it would seem a lot of people should be staring at the ceiling all night.

"Affinity fraud" is one of the oldest tricks around. The con artist gains the trust of his victims by becoming a member of their tight community, which often involves joining a church. Utahns, not surprisingly, find themselves targets of these sorts of scams frequently.

In this case, Southwick pleaded guilty to swindling at least 800 investors out of a combined $140 million. One minute they think this fellow member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is going to help them turn a tidy profit on investments. The next, they learn he has spent it all on massages, vacations and his own mortgage.

And for many of the rest of us there are, no doubt, condescending smiles as we wonder at the naivete of people who ought to have known better. While we smile, the affinity-breeds-stupidity lesson is repeated all around us.

It is, in fact, a theme of the Information Age.

How many e-mail messages do you get each day with subject lines that make you think you know the person, or that he or she is responding to an earlier query you sent? How many purport to be from businesses or Web sites you know and trust, trying to lure you like a well-disguised witch with a poisoned apple?

Why do dishonest people use these tactics? Because they offer a reliable rate of return.

And because friendships can make us do stupid things.

Why else would large numbers of high school students in Davis County be trading nude photos of themselves over cell phones? These weren't casual acquaintances or strangers. They were friends doing something incredibly stupid in an age where a photo, once sent electronically, might as well have escaped from Pandora's Box.

They weren't alone. Such cell-phone scandals are surfacing all over the countryside, leaving bread crumbs that will forever lead people back to embarrassing moments in their lives.

When affinity enters in, reason and healthy skepticism often depart.

But it isn't just affinity. Friendship alone would be harmless without at least a touch of greed or, as was likely with the Davis County teens, a desire to be popular at all costs.

It happened recently in Great Britain, where a man took several Seventh Day Adventists for millions of British pounds. A report on the Press Association National Newswire said he promised people returns of up to 3,000 percent. It happened in Florida, where a Miami lawsuit claims one man lured another into fraudulent real estate investments because of the belief that both were Orthodox Jews.

The experts say there are ways to protect yourself from financial frauds. Beware of people who promise enormous rates of return or who claim to have found ways to beat the system. Beware of people who seem to be trading on their membership in your church or social group. Do your own research.

As with any behavior, take a step back and imagine what the worst possible outcome could be.

Or you could take my mother's advice — never buy anything from a friend.

It's always better to spend a few nights sleeping on a decision than to wake up buried under a sudden storm of icy reality, wondering how your former friend can sleep at night.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com