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Easy marks

Charity | Pyramid scheme uses pastors to build trust and gain 'members'

Legend has it that P.T. Barnum once said, "There is a sucker born every minute."

If that's true, it's possible that Harvey Dockstader Jr. is out to find them all-from prison, and using pastors and "church" leaders to find his marks.

Dockstader was convicted of running an illegal pyramid scheme in Harris County (Houston), Texas, in 2008, and sentenced to two years in jail. Dockstader's scheme was an odd mix of an old--fashioned chain letter, a multi-level marketing organization, and prosperity theology. His organization, Elite Activity, recruits pastors into the organization, who then recruit their flocks. The new recruits give money to the organization-in amounts as small as $50 but in some cases as large as $1,000 a month. The money goes to those at the top of the pyramid, with those at the bottom getting nothing-unless they are able to recruit more people below them. The organization sells nothing, has no products or services. It exists purely to get more people to join the network.

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"It's a classic pyramid scheme," said Valerie Turner, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Dockstader. "A pretty straightforward case."

But this pyramid scheme has a twist. New recruits are told they are embracing a "belief system of giving." Their payments are not fees or dues-but gifts. And like much "prosperity gospel" teaching, recruits are promised a massive "harvest" on the "seeds" they plant. The website declares: "You can receive $800, $2,000, $4,000, $8,000, $16,000, $32,000, and $48,000 in gifts-Over and over again!!"

According to prosecutor Turner: "It always amazes me that people fall for these schemes, but they do. We see them pop up from time to time."

One of the things that is interesting about this one, however, is that despite the fact that Dockstader is still in prison-he's not due out until May 2010-his organization has continued to operate, and now it claims to be a church: The Elite Resurrected Church. People who contribute money are "members" of the church.

Apparently it has become massive, and it's growing. Though the "church" has a website, finding a live person who will speak for the organization is difficult. Dockstader is in jail, and Dockstader's attorney is now the pastor of the Elite Resurrected Church. He didn't respond to WORLD's attempts to contact him. However, Jean Small, of Portsmouth, Va., says she has been involved with Elite for seven years, and she claims it has more than 500,000 members. She said, "It became a church to overcome legal issues, and because it's a belief system. That belief is that you have to give to get." She added, "I was in the civil rights movement in the '60s. Now I'm in the gifting movement."

Her claim of 500,000 members is hard to substantiate, though it's clear that there has been a resurgence in activity in the last few months-often in insular ethnic communities, or poor minority communities. Brazilian pastors in Boston, for example, embraced Elite Resurrected after an article about it appeared in a Portuguese-language newspaper targeting the Brazilian community. Elite also spread in Mormon communities in Utah before voluntarily shutting down its Utah operation after a citation from the Utah Division of Consumer Protection.

Jane Driggs, president of the Utah Better Business Bureau, told WORLD that such scams often start out with people recruiting their family and friends, and if a few people start making money-even if it is at the expense of others-people start to believe that they can, too. Driggs said it is not surprising that such scams often spill over into religious communities, because they prey on people's inherent desire to believe. "People just want to believe," she said. "Unfortunately, you have to be careful what you believe in."

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