Being Wise and Harmless—

In Our Finances

Prophecies for Israel today are full of condemnation for injustice and unfairness in our business and legal practices. Are you affected? Probably so. We are continually bombarded by advertising: TV, radio, print media, billboards and even telephone calls. Most of us know that this advertising is cleverly designed to motivate us to purchase something that we otherwise would not. Products are marketed to us to solve our problems: they tell us that if we buy their deodorant, people will like us; if we buy their toy, our children will be good for us; if we buy their car or clothes, we will have others' respect.

How often do we find ourselves buying something that "we have heard of" or that "we are excited about" rather than something that we have carefully thought out and decided that we need? If we believe that we are here in this life to grow to become like our Savior (Eph 4:13-14), then we should want to think out our decisions and make them as He would make them, rather than simply doing what someone says is "good for us" or doing "what everyone else is doing." Eternally valuable character comes from within, not from what we buy.

There are numerous schemes and scams out there waiting for us. Some try to convince us that "everyone is doing it," others tell us they have "a special deal, just for you." Some try to take advantage of your generosity, others try to take advantage of your greed. We can mention only a few, but the principles should help you with others.

False Charities

As shocking as it may seem, most charities do very little good with the money they receive. Nearly all of the money collected is spent on the collection process and on a few high salaries of the people running it. Understanding this is especially important for people who have left large church organizations and are looking for ways to do good. You may have received phone calls and mail solicitations asking for money for anything from international disasters to your local fire department. It is usually lawful for a person to say he is "collecting for the Red Cross" or your "local police department" as long as he gives them a dollar out of the thousands he collects.

If you ask the soliciting organization for an audited statement of how much they receive and where they spend it, many of them will simply stop talking to you. An honest charity is usually staffed at least partly by volunteers and is usually very happy to tell you about the people and groups that they help. If a charity tells you that they must keep the recipients of their aid confidential, how will anyone ever know that anyone received anything from them? We, the people with the holy spirit, are told to let our light shine—not pay someone else to shine for us. When others see the work of the spirit in us, we should be ready to give an answer (1Pet 3:15).

"Hard-luck" Con Artists

There is no end to the varieties they will use, but the story almost always involves an apparently "righteous" person (the con artist) with no money and who desperately needs a little money (yours) right now. The stories are well thought out to make it hard for you to verify anything important. For example, a person may claim that he came to your town for a job interview, but his wallet was stolen and he needs $63 dollars to get a bus back home where his wife (or mother) is severely ill. The place were he applied for a job is closed, his wife does not have a phone, but the bus station will verify that the ticket to his "home town" costs $63. Many of us want to help people who have genuine need, but if we help a con-artist, we are just encouraging his evil ways of living.

Keep in mind that the con artist wants money, but a "hard-luck" person wants a solution—however it may come. One of the best ways to find if people are serious about their problem is to think of a way to solve their problem without giving them money and see if they are interested. In the above example, it might work to offer to take the person to the bus station and buy them a non-refundable ticket. If they are really a person in need, they will be overjoyed. If they are con artists, they will be hesitant or refuse you.

Another approach that will eliminate some phonies is to ask many detailed questions and take notes: his wife's name, her parent's names and grandparent's names, where they grew up, the description of their houses, the job for which he was applying, the jobs he previously had, the names of his bosses, etc. Then, ask the same questions over again and see if you get the same answers. A man in trouble can easily remember these details, a con-artist will have trouble inventing all of this detail (he cannot tell you how he really lives) and keeping it straight. You can be straightforward with them and tell them that you are not sure that they are telling the truth. If the person gets angry with you for questioning them, it is almost a sure sign that they are a con-artist. People who really need help will be glad to talk to anyone who is giving them even a little consideration.

Phone Bill Funny Business

More than one fellow Sabbath-keeper has tried to sell long distance service to me. Telephone billing has become so complex that many of the people who sell telephone services do not understand it. (I had a salesman tell me that I should give up trying to understand it—just trust that his company was better.) Long distance companies often promise to save you 20% to 50% off of AT&T's basic rates. They do not mention that almost no one pays AT&T's basic rates—that AT&Toffers at least a 25% discount to nearly everyone. After analyzing some of these "20% to 50% savings" deals, I found that the vast majority of the savings was only 20%—the 50% savings only occurred only on unusual calls (e.g. from Maine to Hawaii). There are a few companies with better rates than AT&T, but many of those claiming to have better rates are into a big-time deception.

Other long-distance companies will down-play the rates issue and tell you to use them because they give money to "Christian causes" and that the "big three" long-distance companies give money to "gay and liberal" causes. Avoiding business with a company that you know is doing evil is Biblically sound. However, some of the "proof" offered by these small "Christian companies" is extremely poor. Why should we let one long distance company evaluate the morals of another long distance company for us? We, not a telephone company, should decide to which charities we will give. We should seek an honest phone company that provides good service at a reasonable price.

Right now, there is an insidious phone scam using Caribbean phone numbers with an 809 area code. Local long distance companies in the Caribbean charge outside callers extremely high rates (over $20 per minute) and give big rebates to people who receive foreign calls. Scam artists make calls to the US, hoping to get an answering machine (if someone answers, they hang up). When they get a machine, they leave an 809 area code number and a message about a dying relative or some other emergency. If you call back, you will either get a long recording or someone who speaks broken English and essentially just tries to keep you talking a long time. Since you made the call, you are legally responsible for paying for it. The problem will get worse when the new area codes are implemented for each Caribbean country: 242, 246, 264, 268, 284, 345, 441, 473, 664, 758, 767, 784, 787, 868, 869, 876. Hopefully, some enterprising long distance company will offer a service to warn customers when calls they are making exceed a certain rate (e.g. $1 per minute).

Free-Loaders

Even the tightly-controlled hierarchical organizations had their share of free-loaders. I know of cases where people would wander among church areas with a sad story, and members would take them in for a while. I know of others who only attend services when there is a pot-luck meal—and they never bring anything. Still others seemed to be experts at qualifying for "third tithe assistance." But when ministers from various congregations would get together, they would sometimes find the same people were freeloading in other congregations. These were almost always people who could work if they had to. "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat" (2Ths 3:10).

The smaller organizations and independent local congregations are probably considered "easy marks" by free-loaders. They usually have an open atmosphere and it is easy for a person to bring up their "troubles" to the whole congregation. The leaders probably have little experience with free-loaders in the past. Some free-loaders can even sing or play an instrument well, or do a good job of expounding the scriptures. If they tell a heart-rending story, cry, praise God for bringing them to a congregation, and only ask for prayer—they are likely to get some food, a place to stay, and/or some money. It is right and good that we look after needy brethren, but it is also right that we discern truly needy people from those who would simply prefer that others work for them. An honest person who is taking a hand-out should want to do some kind of work, if possible, in exchange for what he receives. If a "down & out" guest can walk around, visit and do enjoyable things, but is not eager to help with simple house-work, this is a sign of trouble.

High Return Investments

You can find thousands of flyers, newsletters, classified ads, investment counselors, stock brokers, and other entities offering investments that "almost certainly" will return 30% or more each year. Many private individuals invest in these schemes. But think about it. If the huge banks and corporations normally invest billions of dollars in places that will only return about 10%, why don't their full-time money managers find and invest in all of these 30% and more investment opportunities? Because they know that such a high percentage of these investment schemes will fail that they would be better off with a relatively sure 10% return than 40% returns where half of the investments completely fail (100%negative return).

Yes, there are some investments that really do pay high rates or return. But all of them sound good to the investor—especially if this is the first time that he heard about such an investment. It is usually the worst investments that are the most promoted—the better ones people see and do not need much promotion. Unless you have the ability to really analyze the people, the organization, and the technical merits of a high-return investment, then you are just taking a bad risk. A retired dairy farmer probably has the skills necessary to evaluate a new dairy farm operation that is seeking his investment. If he feels the operation will be a success, it makes sense to invest—he will be able to tell when things go wrong and to insist on corrective action. The same man probably should not invest in soybean fields in Costa Rica or a start-up cable television company—even though the profit potential might be higher. He simply cannot evaluate them as well.

The Old Testament law and the book of Proverbs agree: it is best if a person manages his own resources, rather than leaving them to others. If age or other concerns prevent a person from day-to-day responsibility, a person should invest in areas where he can know that he is making a wise choice.

Little or No Work
Money-Making Schemes

Again, you can see these ads like this in the back of many magazines:

Anyone can earn $50,000 a year in your own home with no investment and no special skills. Send $30 for complete information available no where else!"

If you answer such an ad, you may get instructions to place an ad just like the one you answered. Or, you may get some other dishonest or impractical scheme. Whether the scheme produces money or not, you must ask these questions: Are you doing something useful for the money you receive... or are you becoming a con artist? Could everyone in the world have a job that paid well and required little knowledge or work? If so, who would feed us, build houses, make clothes, etc? If we expect the Eternal to bless our efforts, we must be serving our fellow man with our efforts, not simply extracting money from somewhere.

Pyramid or "Chain Letter"
Fund Raising.

One of the most common false money-raising schemes is based on the old concept of the "chain letter." You have probably received a letter that asks you to send a letter, picture postcard, or a certain amount of money to someone on the top of the list in the letter, and add your name to the bottom of the list and mail some number of copies (between 10 and hundreds) of the letter to friends or a purchased mailing list. A letter may explain in detail how you need only send one dollar to the person on top of the list, then send 100 letters to people who all send 100 letters to people who all send 100 letters to people who will all send a dollar to you when your name is finally on top of the list and you will get a million dollars. Wow! It sounds great: you spend a dollar and get a million dollars!

But consider the end of it: the million people who sent you a dollar all hope to get a million dollars too. When they send out their hundred letters each, there will be enough for every one of the nearly 100-million households in the USA. Then, where will those hundred million people get their million dollars? There is no significant number of people who have not received a letter, so everyone who has already received a million dollars has to be willing to accept more letters so that everyone can have a million dollars. How many letters, on average, does each person have to accept and process so that everyone can have a million dollars? A million letters! Yes, if everyone is going to get a million dollars, they are all going to have to pay a million dollars! Even if they use bulk mail, each will have to pay about $200,000 in postage. Is this a productive activity?

In reality, such nonsense is never carried to the entire country—most people ignore the letter, some people follow its instructions, and some people replace all of the names and addresses on the letter with their own home, work, PO Box and best-friend's addresses and do not bother to send "the dollar to the person on top of the list." This causes them to get more money from the scheme and others to get less. Another sign of an evil enterprise: the more deceptive you are, the more money you make—not true about honest work. The conclusion of the matter is: some people pay more than they receive and some receive more than they pay, but nothing useful is accomplished and a lot of time and effort is wasted.

It is our understanding that the above type of pyramid scheme is now illegal in the United States. However, there are many similar, apparently legal, schemes where the participants are instructed to buy some token item from one or more of the "people on the list." The effect is the same as above, only even more money is wasted on postage and meaningless products.

Multi-Level Marketing

Multi-level marketing is a method of sales where salesmen are compensated not only for how much product they sell, but also how many people they sign up as salesmen for the company. When a worthwhile product that requires a lot of hands-on customer education is being sold, multi-level marketing makes sense. Unfortunately, some multi-level marketing programs are little more than disguised, big-dollar pyramid schemes. Some programs require a new salesmen to personally buy initial inventory, samples, instruction materials and other items. Some require a substantial cash payment for the "privilege" of becoming a salesmen. Often, the person who signed up the new salesman receives a portion of this initial payment. When this happens, there is a great motivation for individuals to simply sign up other salesmen and not to sell the product at all. It is much like the "pyramid fund-raising."

I know of one specific company that gave new salesmen the best commission percentage if they would start by buying thousands of dollars of their product—a gasoline additive. They told salesmen there was no risk, because they gave a written guarantee that they could return unopened products back to the company at any time. Millions of dollars of product was purchased, commissions were paid, and everyone was happy. Later, after some salesmen realized that the world just doesn't need millions of gallons of gasoline additive, they began returning their entire hoard of product. The company had trouble getting back commissions that had already been paid, so they revised their buy-back policy: within 90 days they would begin refunding only about 75% of the product purchase price. Most of their salesmen decided to return the product before the 90 days were up and the company went bankrupt—nearly all of their profits had been on product sold to salesmen—not to people actually using the product.

On the opposite extreme, I personally worked for a multi-level company that made water filters. Most of Southern California has very hard and/or polluted water. Bottled water distributors and grocery stores do a big business in selling water—individuals often spent over $100 per year. I was looking for a place where I could buy an effective water filter, but could not find it. By chance, an out-of-town friend offered to demonstrate a water filter and had some very good scientific data on how the filter worked. Furthermore, it paid for itself in a little over a year. I purchased the filter and became a salesman—it cost very little to get started. I sold about 10 water filters to friends over several years—doing the plumbing work myself when necessary. I never had to go to meetings or buy any training material. I earned enough money to make my efforts worthwhile and I never had any complaints from customers. Most of my sales came from customer referrals. I never signed up any other salesmen. Later, I began using another non-multi-level company that would sell me a comparable filter cheaper and let me charge an even lower price for it. I continued selling until I moved. Had not my friend introduced the filter to me and been motivated to "sign me up" as a salesmen, I and many others would have spent $1000's more on bottled water over the years.

Unfortunately, most multi-level marketing experiences are not as nice. The most common problems are:

1) People put in more money than they ever get out.

2) People put in far more time than the little amount of money they receive is worth.

3) People lose their friends when they continually pester them to buy or become distributors.

4) People lose their friends when their friends do buy the product and are unhappy with it.

5) People lose their friends when their friends become distributors and experience these five problems.

If you are considering joining a multi-level marketing program, look for the following points:

1) The product must be good. If the product does not live up to its claims, you will be making enemies with each sale. Remember, you will probably see your customers again in the resurrection. Will they be happy about what you sold them, or will you have to say "I needed the money." No amount of marketing can make a bad product good. Use the products a while before selling them.

2) The product must be the most cost-effective solution and easily available. If the same thing is available from a Sears store at a similar price, why should anyone buy it from an individual? Sears will often replace or repair defective items anywhere in the country—multi-level can't make such a claim. There is really no reason to multi-level market toilet paper, potatoes, or undershirts. The cheapest way to sell things that everyone uses is the large warehouse concept: items are moved directly from trucks to the sales floor by forklift, and the sales people need only unwrap the pallets and open the boxes.

3) It must be financially worthwhile for a person to only sell the product and not "sign up" other salesmen. If the entire emphasis of the program is on how much money you will make when you sign up 10 salesmen who each sign up 10 other salesmen, it is a pyramid scheme as we previously described. Simple math shows that only a few percent of the people in an organization can have 100 people "underneath them." If the "people at the bottom" cannot survive, the whole pyramid will eventually come crashing down.

4) You should not be required to continually go to "hype meetings" or pay for continued motivational materials and training. If you are selling technical products that really do require training (for example, you learn to install an outdoor swimming pool), that is good. But most programs require attendance of meetings that just tell people to sign, sign, sign distributors and sell, sell, sell products. All this will do is frustrate you or cause you to have problems 3, 4, and 5 listed above.

Summary

These problems are especially difficult with members of the same local congregation. For some reason, some people get mixed up and think that because they are doing business with "church members," that the other guy should be especially nice to them. If they are buying, they expect better work or a better product at a lower price. If they are selling they expect that if they do not deliver the product or service on time or as promised, that "the brother will understand and not be angry." In reality, people should always try to expect and/or deliver the agreed upon product at the agreed price.

Our Savior taught that these big issues—how we conduct ourselves in our relationships—are the weightier matters of the law—more important than many lesser issues (Matt 23:23). The book of Proverbs has much to say about business practices: what we should do and how we should deal with others. It is worthwhile reading!

—Norman S. Edwards


Why Write About all this Physical Stuff?

The Eternal put us in a physical universe so we can learn spiritual principles that we can use for all time (1Cor 10:11, 9:9-10, 15:46-51). We have used several pages to cover some physical items to both explain those items and how spiritual deceptions can work.

It is easy to understand that a long-distance salesman will try to convince us that rates are horribly complicated and we shouldn't try to understand them. That makes the customer feel better about not understanding them and also makes it possible for the salesman to receive his commissions for selling his service which may well be a bad deal.

Once we understand this deception, then we can understand a "spiritual teacher" who might tell us that doctrines are too complicated for us to understand, and that we should leave them to the professional theologian (him). We become comfortable trusting in a teacher who seems to "have it all figured out." Later on, he tells us that we should never listen to any other teacher besides him—and we should send all of our contributions only to him. While he claims that these teachings are for our benefit, it becomes obvious they primarily benefit him. —NSE


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