WHEN SOME PEOPLE HEAR the word cult, they conjure up images of evildoers in black robes huddling and chanting around a bonfire. Others simply think of a cult as a small band of people who believe something outside the mainstream of society-maybe they're UFO fanatics-with no malfeasance involved. A cult can be either extreme or anything in between. Cults are often divided into two groups, destructive and benign. Both share the same highly charged devotion and dedication to a person, idea, or physical symbol, but the two part company when they operate in an unethical or illegal manner or use coercion, mind control, or other manipulative techniques to keep their membership intact. The goal of destructive cults is not spiritual growth or enlightenment but advancement of the leader's aims, usually financial gain or political power. Most cults are based on religion, but many are financial-type cults whose members are convinced by a charismatic leader that they will get rich if they follow a certain life-style doctrine. The main goal isn't spiritual enlightenment but money, and these groups can be just as destructive and powerful as any cult based in religious dogma. Unfortunately for an investigator, a cult's activities often seem arcane and unconnected until you get that one piece of information that makes it all fit together. For example, while my investigative firm was investigating a group in our area, we were convinced it was a financial-type cult. However, its exact method of fraud was a mystery to us until we learned about a defunct group in New Jersey that had been operating in a similar manner. It was thought that the New Jersey group had all but dissolved after the leader and one member had been convicted of conspiracy and theft, but apparently several members had splintered off and established a cell in our area.
During our investigation we learned how vulnerable private security officer companies are to this cult's brand of fraud and how easily the security companies' people were compromised. Because of client confidentiality the names of the people involved or the companies apparently defrauded cannot be revealed. However, the group's operation, motivations, and behavior, along with ways security companies can guard against similar groups, can be described.
The parents of a 30-year-old woman asked us to locate their daughter, who they thought might be in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. The parents suspected she was associated with a cult but didn't know anything more. Their suspicions stemmed from their daughter's uncharacteristic behavior: She dropped out of college and deferred her student loan and then went to work as a security guard. Shortly afterward, she sent her parents a vitriolic letter telling them she no longer wanted to have anything to do with them. An attempted meeting was thwarted by the daughter.
Her letter had all the earmarks of a typical cult "exit letter," the kind that destructive cults persuade members to write to their families. Such letters are designed to sever all ties with relatives who might want them to leave the group. The letters are also symbolic: Their purpose is to make a definitive psychological break with a recruit's former life.
Through data base checks using the woman's social security number and an old address, we were able to locate her car in the driveway of a house in Washington. Further investigation revealed several other women at the same address, and crisscross directories from prior years revealed former occupants, also women.
Although the subject's car didn't move for several weeks-we didn't spot her at all during that time-surveillance of cars driven by the other occupants revealed another rented group house in northern Virginia to which they all traveled between 7:00 and 8:00 every night.
During the next several weeks, around-the-clock surveillance of all women in the group, including our subject (who simply showed up one day), revealed some bizarre patterns and behavior. …