It began innocently enough. A fellow member of my church received this email from our pastor: “Hello Sam (not his real name). Kindly let me know if you get my mail. I need a favor. Thank you.” It was signed with the pastor’s name. Even though he thought it was a little out of the ordinary for the pastor to request a favor from him, the church member replied, that yes, he was getting the emails and asked how he could help.
The next day, my friend received a reply email from the pastor stating, “Glad to hear from you Samuel. I just need to get iTunes gift cards for some women going through cancer at the hospital, but I can’t do that right now because of my busy schedule. Can you get them from any store around you possibly now? and I will pay you back later in cash or check. Let me know if you can get the cards for these patients. Many blessings.” It was again signed with the pastor’s name.
My church friend showed the email to his wife, who works in our BBB office. She immediately knew the email was a scam. She pointed out that the email didn’t come from our church’s email address domain. It was from a Gmail account with the pastor’s name. She also noted that in the second email the pastor called him Samuel, something our pastor would never do. To top it off, he was asking for iTunes gift cards and didn’t give dollar amounts wanted. Asking for iTunes gift cards is a very common request from scammers.
Sam called the pastor to verify he hadn’t sent the emails. Our pastor assured Sam he hadn’t and said a couple other church members called him with similar stories. He also said he too had gotten one of these types of emails, supposedly from one of his superiors higher in the church.
This phishing scam is not only hitting our area hard, but it is rapidly traveling across the nation. Shrewd scammers are targeting unsuspecting church members who wouldn’t be alarmed to get an email from their pastor and provide help.
How do you recognize if you may be the target on one of these phishing scam emails? Here are a few tips:
• Just like my coworker said to her husband, “He called you Samuel.” This particular pastor doesn’t talk that way.
• My coworker also pointed out, the con man used a “Gmail.com” address that closely resembled the pastor’s real email address. For example: email@example.com was changed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Look for punctuation, grammar and capitalization mistakes. In the return email to my friend the “pastor” failed to capitalize the first word after the request for Sam to buy iTunes cards. There were also several grammatical errors as well.
• The scammer asked for my friend to get iTunes cards. This is a huge red flag. iTunes, Amazon, GreenDot and other gift cards are often used by fraudsters to fleece the public. They ask you to email the card number and information on the back, then resell that information at a discount. Once you give them the information, you never hear from them again. The dollar amounts are usually relatively small, but the undermining of trust on a personal level can inflict severe damage to respected institutions and people.
• If you are suspicious, simply pick up the phone and call your pastor to verify the request.
If you’re like me, one of the people you trust most is your pastor. As cynical as people claim to be, when your pastor asks you for help, you’re more than likely going to offer it.
Just make sure it is your pastor!
Cheryl Parson is president of the Better Business bureau serving West Central Ohio. The BBB may be found on the Internet at www.lima.bbb.org.