Deception is on the rise as scam artists ratchet up the subtlety with gift card scams targeting church members in Michigan and across the United States.
“I’m in the middle of a family meeting for an unfinished dispute. I need you to run an errand for me ASAP,” one such scam email began. WXYZ Detroit reported on the recent scam email purporting to be from Pastor Jack Mannschreck of Central United Methodist Church in Waterford Township.
“Somehow they manage to make these things look like they’re coming from the pastor,” said Robin Danek, who works in the front office. The email requested two $500 Google Play gift cards.
According to the report, she and a second staffer recognized the scam, but others have been taken in.
In a 2018 Click On Detroit report, hackers used a church email list to bilk members at St. Paul of Tarsus in Clinton Township with claims of helping the priest or donating for the sick. As the former Eastpointe police chief, Parish Council Chair Michael Laruetti recognized the scams, gathered more information from the scammers, and took the case to police.
“Somebody is taking advantage of the value and trustworthiness of a pastor, which is insane and sad,” the report quoted the Better Business Bureau’s Melanie Dequesnal. “You’re compounding it with somewhat of a Ponzi scheme using the pastor and the parishioners, but then you’re also looking at the gift card scheme.”
Phone call targeted Cincinnati Episcopalians
Donald Kincaid, the groundskeeper at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, nearly fell for a phone scam claiming to be from the local utility company.
“The caller said that the gas and electric would be cut off in about a half an hour because the bill hadn’t been paid,” he said.
Verifying the facts with the power company saved the church nearly $1,000, according to the July 3 report by WXYZ News.
Emails to Unitarian Universalists
A July 19 Unitarian Universalist World blog post reports five emails targeting their members in recent months.
In a 2017 incident in Houghton, Michigan, the Rev. Chris Rothbauer, who was serving Keweenaw UU Fellowship, reportedly thought a plug-in on the congregation’s website was hacked. Other cases may have involved members’ email addresses being taken from email providers, publicly available directories, or by searching congregational websites.
Red flags to detect scamming include:
• Slightly-altered email address and/or service provider
• Threatening or urgent subject line
• Internal address saying only “Hi” without a name
• Request for a gift card donation
Scams reportedly are difficult to prosecute, especially if they originate overseas, but it helps to be informed.
FTC Consumer Alert
“Scammers pretend to be a pastor, rabbi, priest, imam, or bishop and then ask worshipers for gift card contributions for a worthy cause. Appeals are often made by email, but we’ve heard people are also getting texts and phone calls, too,” said Colleen Tressler, a consumer education specialist in a July 28 FTC Alert.
“The imposter asks people to buy a popular gift card — frequently, iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon — and then asks for the gift card number and PIN on the back of the card. Those numbers let the scammer immediately get the money people loaded onto the card. And once that’s done, the scammer and peoples’ money are gone, usually without a trace,” she added.
The FTC recommends that any gift card payment to a scammer be reported to the gift card company and the FTC as soon as possible.
The FTC also offers signup for consumer alerts.
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Abigail Nobel is a reporter for The Michigan Star.