Long ago we postulated, based on personal experiences, that COG groups were at times likely overcharging for “discounted” church events in cases where members have to make bookings through ministers. A few months ago, PCG proved this hypothesis as true when a conscientious member blew the whistle on what he termed “the perfect money laundering plan” among various of the cult’s international congregations. Since then, some have shared their similar stories and suspicions and some rigorous debate has broken out about the extent of this fraud throughout the COG.
We pretty much have to rely on information from members to learn about how often and in what cults this scam has taken place. But we recently launched our own direct probe into the matter and have prepared some initial findings.
The scam basically looks like this:
- There’s a big COG event necessitating that members book in advance, be it for a meal, dance, FOT site, conference or whatever.
- The COG group strikes a bulk/group discount deal with the venue involved, negotiating for reduced per-person prices and perhaps other benefits too. Since COG groups usually hold off-season events, this is usually a given.
- COG members, instead of booking directly with the venue, are required, or at least encouraged, to book through church employees.
- The event prices charged by the COG are greater than it would be if the member had booked directly through the venue.
- The COG group pays the member’s booking to the venue after receiving the money and secretly keeps the remainder resulting from the overcharge.
It is a clever scheme, and at the very least, we have strong evidence PCG has engaged in it. This is unfortunately a difficult scam to uncover, because in the case of Alex Foster, the member who flashed light into PCG’s dark corners, his discovery was based on a clerical error. Essentially, we only know about it because PCG screwed up. So it takes some alert members with their minds and eyes wide open to discover what’s going on, because unfortunately, too many COG members absolutely trust their pastors, even though they should be far more skeptical.
So what about other COG groups? We have some anecdotal suspicions about this going on in UCG and elsewhere, but we haven’t known for certain. Without the kind of document-driven smoking gun, anything we produce would be hearsay. However, there are some indicators to look for when investigating the presence of this scam within COG cults:
- Is there a COG event being held at a large venue that is not the standard church meeting hall?
- Does the event cost individual members money to attend?
- Has the church announced a group or bulk-discounted price for the event?
- Are members asked to make their reservations, buy their tickets or whatever through a church intermediary instead of contacting the venue directly?
- Do members have the ability to go around the church intermediary and book directly through the venue (meaning the venue is alright with people doing that)?
- Is the direct booking price less than the church’s intermediary price?
Taking this issue on an case-by-case, cult-by-cult basis, if a specific church event manages to check all of those boxes, the opportunity for corruption is there and the likelihood that members are being overcharged for that additional money to fall through the cracks, at least to us, seems very high.
When debating COG members about this, they often insist to us that item four — members being asked, able or required to book through church employees — absolutely not does not happen. However, we’ve found evidence this does occasionally happen and we have the screenshots to prove it. Members are frequently assessed event fees and are required to register through online, church-run web forms where payments can be made directly to the church, including for hotel rooms, sporting events, dances, shows, etc.
Silenced made a sample list of COG groups — those hosting big gala church events — and examined events from the recent past, measuring them against our checklist to see if there was at the very least an opportunity for groups to covertly overcharge members.
|Event?||Winter Family Weekend 2013||Kansas City Family Weekend||Winter Family Weekend 2013|
|Intermediary?||Yes, UCG could be paid and registered with directly.||Yes, LCG could be paid and registered with directly.||Yes, COGWA could be paid and registered with directly.|
|Venue?||Yes, you could book directly through the venue.||Yes, you could book directly through the venue.||Yes, you could book directly through the venue.|
|Price?||$114.69/night for UCG
$189/night normal rate
|$79/night for LCG
|$63/night for COGWA
Please note the normal venue prices listed are based on 2014 prices for those dates and do not necessarily reflect the 2013 prices from when the events actually took place. Unfortunately, it’s all we could find.
So it’s clear the opportunity for fraud has been present in recent years, counter to COG member claims. What’s very difficult for us to do is prove those opportunities have been seized upon by church employees to defraud members. Based on the pricing structures for these events, it doesn’t seem like any fraud took place within this sample group. However, the setup is there. Ministers are directly handling registration, event fees and managing the group discounts. If they wanted to, they could pull something without raising suspicions. Documented proof is really something only members can provide. But this hopefully sheds some further light on subject. We would further urge members to obtain a healthy skepticism and keep their eyes open.
The question members really should be asking, is why they should be paying for these events at all? Members already pay 20-30 percent of their income in tithes and offerings. The COG groups don’t generally own property beyond their home offices, do not pay taxes and recent numbers put the largest ones only spending 30-40 percent of cult income on “preaching the gospel.” Members aren’t getting much bang for their buck. One would think an annual bit of hoopla using the money members have already funneled into the church would be reasonable. Guess not. A good indicator of a scam is something you’re required to keep paying into without getting much, if anything, in return. The COG groups fit that description very well.