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Religious scam takes advantage of elderly man

The FBI accuses a son of convincing his father to invest in a phony Christian start-up

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Religious scam takes advantage of elderly man

By all appearances, Ternion Group International LLC was a professional and explicitly Christian development company, aiming to revitalize poor, crime-riddled American neighborhoods by providing job training and investing in real estate.

The now-shuttered homepage for the startup displayed a Bible verse: “And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in” (Isaiah 58:12).

But the U.S. Department of Justice has accused the group of scamming an elderly person. In April, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Texas charged five people with defrauding a now-96-year-old World War II veteran of his life savings. Advocates for senior adults say the case highlights an increase in scams targeting older Americans, and some ministry watchdogs screen religious groups for dishonest practices.

The FBI reported that Americans over age 60 lost $3.4 billion dollars to fraud in 2023, an almost 11 percent increase from the year before. Of that, $1.2 billion was lost to investment schemes.

Ternion Group International’s mission intrigued Victor Evans Sr. As a World War II veteran who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, he had been looking for a way to invest in his old neighborhood, which still struggles with crime and poverty. As a Christian, he wanted to work with a group that matched his values. His son, Victor Evans Jr., 70, said the same thing.

When Evans Jr. learned about the Ternion Group, he convinced his father, then 92, to invest over $322,000 of his retirement money to start a Chicago-based branch, according to the DOJ indictment. It also alleged that Ternion’s leaders promised Evans Sr. that his money would be used to build a vocational school and buy 100 homes, and that Evans Sr. would profit from the investment.

But years passed, and Ternion’s job training classes didn’t materialize. Neither did the vocational school that Ternion promised to build. But Victor Evans Sr.’s money disappeared, and no one on Ternion’s staff has spoken to him since 2020, according to charges filed in Texas. Of the five people accused of defrauding Evans Sr., one is Evans’ son, Victor Evans Jr.

The case is part of the DOJ’s Elder Justice Initiative, which is dedicated to “combating elder abuse, neglect and financial fraud and scams that target our nation’s older adults.”

Experts I spoke to said an elder case like the case between the older Evans and Ternion is unusual particularly because it involves both a family member and an elaborate scam. Most involve one or the other.

Typically, elders are bilked out of their money either by family or by total strangers, said Lori Mars, deputy director of the National Center on Elder Abuse. But both are based on trust. For family, trust is built in from Day One. An adult child who stands to inherit his father’s estate, for example, may be given access to his elderly father’s bank account information to help him pay bills.

Total strangers, Mars said, “manufacture or fabricate” trust to create a relationship. That can include anything from investment schemes to identity theft or romance scams.

What makes matters worse, Mars says, is the fact that many older Americans are reluctant to report these crimes after they happen. One in 10 older Americans experience some form of abuse each year, but it’s estimated that only 1 in 24 is ever reported, according to the National Council on Aging.

Mars notes that if seniors report a family member or friend who provides daily needs like transportation and house chores, they risk losing help with those needs, as well as the relationship. If a stranger conned them, they risk embarrassment. But if they don’t report it at all, they risk losing more.

“It’s not just a simple matter of stealing someone’s money,” Mars said. “There are so many, I guess you might call ‘comorbidities’ like health problems and isolation, loneliness.”

Those who donate to Christian charities are just as susceptible to elder fraud and exploitation, experts say. Christian watchdog groups like MinistryWatch and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability offer resources for anyone wishing to give responsibly.

Anna Hutsell, a media representative for the ECFA, said potential donors should take their time and not feel compelled by anyone to give. “Individuals should always be able to give cheerfully without pressure from an organization or its representatives,” she wrote in an email.

ECFA accredits legitimate organizations based on how they govern themselves, spend money, communicate with donors, use charitable gifts, and other factors. That said, if a charity isn’t accredited through ECFA or other accountability groups, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s disreputable either.

And when looking up the charity, double check the name, the IRS warned donors in April. It issued a warning about fake charities that use similar sounding names to solicit donations. Scammers that prey on donors will give their fake charity a name that sounds similar to a well-known and established nonprofit. So, too, will legitimate charities with less than stellar backgrounds.

So if a donor wants to support cancer research, he might be confused between the Foundation for Women’s Cancer and the Women’s Cancer Fund. The former is a legitimate charity that has raised $60 million for cancer research. The latter faces a lawsuit accusing it of defrauding donors of $18 million. According to the Federal Trade Commission, only one penny of every dollar raised by the Women’s Cancer Fund went to legitimate purposes. The rest went to fundraising—and to the man who founded the group.

Warren Cole Smith, the president of MinistryWatch and the former associate publisher of WORLD News Group, said potential donors should only give to charities with which they’re familiar.

If a donor is ever in doubt, Smith said, he or she should look closer to home: “I often counsel the vast majority of Christians that 80 to 90 percent of their giving should be to their local church.”

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a correspondent covering marriage, family, and sexuality as part of WORLD’s Relations beat. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three children.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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