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Advice | DJ ASAP, wife used race to scam Black people. Victims may now see relief.

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Marlon Moore, also known as DJ ASAP, and his wife, LaShonda, promised Black investors looking to build generational wealth returns as high as 800 percent if they joined their “blessing loom.”

The Texas couple featured on the OWN reality show “Family or Fiancé” called the investment program and their company “Blessings in No Time,” or BINT Operations.

For an upfront commitment of $1,400 or $1,425, participants were told they could receive as much as $11,200 or $11,400 in return — eight times their contribution.

Members were given playing boards with four levels with 15 spots. The goal: Recruit enough people to push yourself to the center of the board, or blessing loom. Once there, you could collect your payout.

But it was all a pyramid scheme that bilked “tens of millions of dollars” from thousands of consumers, according to two civil enforcement actions.

BINT also was a classic example of affinity fraud, in which con artists target people using their shared history or culture to lure them into some bogus investment.

The Moores, who are Black, prayed with their investors, exploiting their shared race and religion to prey on them.

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Authorities took notice: In 2021, the Texas attorney general sued the couple, alleging they scammed needy Black families. That same year, the Federal Trade Commission and the state of Arkansas accused the Moores of operating a pyramid scheme.

Pyramid scam operators often get away with their con, leaving victims with little hope of getting any of their money back.

On Wednesday, the Moores were hit with a $10.8 million judgment secured by the state of Texas on behalf of nearly 8,000 consumers throughout the country. The couple will pay into a state-administered fund that will be used to provide refunds to affected consumers. A settlement with the FTC and Arkansas permanently bans them from engaging in any multilevel marketing businesses.

A request for comment was submitted to the Moores’ attorney, who did not respond. In the FTC and Arkansas order, the Moores neither admitted nor denied any of the allegations.

While victims are not likely to ever be made whole, there is a win here. For every bad operator exposed, it gets a little easier to spot the next scam.

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The Moores employed a common scam tactic to target African Americans who have endured generations of disenfranchisement. Emancipation, for instance, didn’t prevent federal, state and local laws from denying Blacks the opportunity to build wealth through homeownership. Some remnants, such as discriminatory mortgage practices, or redlining, still exist.

“For most of its history, the United States excluded people of color from its main pathways of opportunity and upward mobility,” according to a 2019 Urban Institute report. “This history of discriminatory policies and institutional practices created deep inequities across social and economic domains.”

And a 2020 study found the property tax system imposes a higher burden on Black families. They pay 13 percent more, on average, each year than a White family in the same situation.

That history makes for a powerful and convincing pitch in these affinity schemes.

“The promise of building wealth, not just for the participants but their children and future generations, highlights that scammers don’t just rely on get-rich-quick pitches,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “They can and will play on seemingly noble goals in an effort to convince consumers to hand over their hard-earned money.”

Why knowing how to spot a scam doesn’t always protect you

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when many people were struggling, I was getting calls, emails and text messages almost weekly from church members, friends and relatives asking me to vet investment offers they were receiving from seemingly erstwhile Black promoters.

Some were pushing “sou-sou” scams, a version of the chain-letter pyramid con in which people are recruited and then encouraged to bring in others with assurances that they can all make three-digit returns in a matter of weeks.

Sou-sou scams misappropriate a legitimate savings strategy that has its roots in Caribbean and West African communities. There’s no wealth-building, only the shifting of money from recruits to people who got in early. Eventually, the enterprise collapses when not enough people can be recruited to keep the scheme going.

A real sou-sou involves a small group of people who all know one another or members of a family who pool their money in an informal savings club. Participants agree to contribute a set amount of money on a weekly or monthly basis and take turns getting a payout. Eventually, everyone gets back only what they put into the sou-sou. There’s no interest or profit guaranteed.

Affinity fraud is particularly despicable because it takes advantage of a trusted relationship. It’s a betrayal at a level that can be devastating.

“We’re going to make sure that y’all get blessed. Just trust us,” Marlon Moore said in a recorded presentation to BINT members.

If you want more personal finance advice that’s timeless, order your copy of Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones.

People are always asking me how folks fall for these cons. That’s the wrong question, because it essentially blames the victim.

Our focus should stay on these scammers and how to protect people from falling for their deceptive investment programs.

People get conned for different reasons, some because they are being greedy but more often because of desperation. Or they naively believe they can get outrageous returns in a short amount of time.

Consumers lost almost $8.8 billion to fraud last year, up more than 30 percent from a year earlier, according to the FTC.

In 2022, consumers reported losing more money to investment fraud, nearly $3.8 billion, than to any other scam category. That figure is more than twice the losses reported in 2021, the FTC said.

“Scams built to take advantage of people’s tightknit connections and trust with family and friends can be incredibly damaging,” Levine said. “It’s why this case was so important to bring and why we’re pleased we were able to put this scam to a stop.”

B.O.M. — The best of Michelle Singletary on personal finance

If you have a personal finance question for Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, please call 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678).

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Money moves for life: For a more sweeping overview of Michelle’s timeless money advice, see Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones. The interactive package offers guidance for every life stage, whether you’re just starting out in your career to living an abundant life in retirement.

Test Yourself: Do you know where you stand financially? Take our quiz and read advice from Michelle.

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