WASHINGTON (Reuters) - State securities regulators warned on Tuesday that an increasing number of scams are using religion as a lure to get people to invest money. According to the Washington-based North American Securities Administrators Association, religion-based investment scams are becoming larger and more sophisticated. Classified by regulators as "affinity fraud," the process involves using someone's religion to gain their trust and, ultimately, their money. "Who could people trust more than someone who sits next to them in church every week?" said Deborah Bortner, president of NASAA and the securities director for the state of Washington. "I've been a securities regulator for 20 years and I've seen more money stolen in the name of God than in any other way." Over the past three years, officials in 27 states have taken legal action against hundreds of companies and individuals that used religious or spiritual beliefs to gain the trust of more than 90,000 investors across the nation before taking their money, NASAA said. In contrast, a 1989 survey co-sponsored by NASAA found that only 15,000 investors had lost money -- over $450 million -- in such scams in the previous five years. The rise in fraud cases is likely related to investors looking for an alternative to the skittish stock market and scams that offer above-market returns, Bortner said. In just one recent instance, a total of $590 million was lost by more than 13,000 people after they put money into the Baptist Foundation of America, which used a maze of shell corporations in a Ponzi scheme before it was shut down in August 1999, NASAA said. Ponzi schemes depend on the solicitation of new investors to pay existing ones. NASAA said three people related to the Baptist Foundation pleaded guilty to defrauding investors in May and have agreed to cooperate in an investigation of five others indicted on 32 counts each of theft, fraud and racketeering. The Baptist Foundation was one of three large cases that have cost investors a total of nearly $1.5 billion in recent years, according to the regulatory group. In one of those cases, Greater Ministries International Church raised about $580 million between 1993 and 1999 by promising to double investors' money through "divinely inspired" investments in the foreign currency market and gold, silver and diamond mines, the state regulators said. Greater Ministries founder Gerald Payne was sentenced on Monday afternoon in federal district court in Tampa, Florida, to 27 years in prison on fraud and conspiracy convictions, according to Joseph Corg, Alabama's securities chief. The scams targeted by the regulators do not include church bonds, which come under the scrutiny of federal and state authorities and require substantial disclosure of how investor money will be used.