Fake ministers targeting the faithful. Here’s what church members should know

Since Mississippi is high on the list of most-religious states, it’s among those that have been targeted in a scam targeted church members.

Parishioners in several Mississippi Catholic congregations began receiving emails just after Christmas last year, which purportedly came from priests and even Bishop Joseph Kopacz, wrote the Mississippi Catholic.

The emails started with “Hi,” but without the recipient’s name, and ended with the name of the church leader. On multiple occasions, scammers used Kopacz’s name in fake email addresses, sending messages asking for gift cards.

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It’s the same scam that is playing out in Oklahoma.

A few weeks ago, members of at least three Oklahoma churches got a strange text message which appeared to be from their pastors. The message said the pastor was in urgent need of money, and was requesting that church members buy Steam Wallet gift cards. (Steam is a video game platform company which sells cards that can be used for video game credits and purchases). The pastor of one church told an Oklahoma TV station that he began getting messages from his parishioners questioning whether the messages were legitimate.

Thankfully, the would-be victims saw through the ruse in this case, but scammers are getting better at tactics to get through our natural misgivings. This is just one example of an alarming new low among scammers: impersonating church leaders to get people to send money.

Because of their generosity and willingness to help others in need, scammers frequently target church members in affinity fraud, a category which also includes major pyramid and Ponzi scams such as the one involving Bernie Madoff. According to statistics, the highest rates of affinity fraud are in the most-religious states, led by Utah.

Avoid scams: Watch to watch for

If you get such an appeal by email, phone, text or mail, be skeptical. There are several red flags:

No name. If someone sends you an email and just starts it with “Hi,” “Hello,” “Greetings,” etc. and doesn’t use your name, it could be a scam. Frequently, friends do send emails and texts to each other without starting with a name, so this complicates things. (In this manners-starved age, email and texting etiquette are often nonexistent, but that’s a topic for another column.) But in general, a message with no name sent out of the blue should be approached skeptically.

Questionable email addresses or phone numbers. Often, scammers will use a fake email address or phone number similar to the real one. For example, if the real address is brotherjoe@fbcpossumholler.com, the scammer might use brotherjimbob@fbcpossumholler.tricky.net (Yes, I’m making these up as I go.) Same goes for phone numbers.

Requests for gift cards. No legitimate appeal is going to ask you to go out and purchase a specific type of gift card, whether it’s Steam, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, or whatever. It’s true that people often give gift cards to people in need, but such requests are usually nonspecific. Scammers frequently ask for a specific type of gift card and want you to scratch off the PIN on the back and send the number so they can immediately drain the card value.

What you should do

Before responding to any appeal, contact the purported sender by another method (don’t reply to the email or text directly) and ask him or her if it’s legitimate.

“If you or someone you know paid a scammer with a gift card, report it as soon as possible,” the FTC’s Colleen Tressler wrote in a blog post. “Call the card company and tell them the gift card was used in a scam. Your reports may help law enforcement agencies launch investigations that could stop imposters and other fraudsters in their tracks.”

For more, visit https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2019/07/worshipers-targeted-gift-card-scam.

Written by: Bill Moak

First published 18.08.19: https://eu.clarionledger.com/story/news/2019/08/18/scamming-faithful-impersonating-church-leaders-gift-cards-calls-among-tactics/2041200001/

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