REGION – On Monday morning, a special email message arrives from Pastor Dan (Rabbi Dan, Father Daniel) explaining an emergency need to help an individual or family in need. It may be home foreclosure, hunger, or something worse. You are asked to help by purchasing $1,000 in gift cards or e-cards from Walmart, Target, or Kohl’s – a variation notes home damage due to freezing pipes and requests purchase of gift cards from The Home Depot or Lowe’s – and email the card codes to a specific address. The message also asks that you not say anything to anyone in order to preserve the recipient’s identity and protect you from being inundated by requests and scams. Sad to say, it is a scam.
Members of several congregations in New England and around the country received “confidential” emails or text messages from clergy or prominent members with pleas for assistance. Many of the messages attributed the need due to Covid-19.
On the “Greenblott Scale” of scam effectiveness, this ranks very high. The impostor takes on the identity of a trusted, close member of the community and the emotional plea lends critical legitimacy. In addition, victims of the scam do not see anything out of the ordinary because religious organizations use donations, tithes, and charity fundraising as normal activities. When tied to the Covid-19 pandemic, the scam becomes a “perfect storm” and is quite successful.
There are immediate red flags when this scam invades your inbox. Begin by closely examining the sender address. If the sender address does not include reference to the congregation, beware. Two of the addresses appearing in local scams are email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Usually, email addresses related to houses of worship will have a web address that includes the name of the congregation such as email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Scammers are very good at creating addresses that are very similar to the legitimate addresses – so be careful.
Another red flag is the nature of the request. Purchasing gift cards or e-cards and sending them to an unknown address is a clear sign of fraud. These purchases are, for the most part, untraceable and certainly not considered as contributions unless they can be acknowledged by the receiving organization.
What should you do if you receive one of these messages? First, don’t let emotion and empathy overtake reason and common sense. Take time to verify the specific need. Call or email the person or organization making the request for verification of the need and request. The likely reply is that the request is bogus and the next course of action is to describe or forward the message to the church or synagogue to alert other members of the congregation. Next, notify federal and state consumer protection offices: Federal Trade Commission, www.ftc.gov; New Hampshire, www.doj.nh.gov/consumer, 888-468-4454; Vermont www.ago.vermont.gov/cap/consumer-complaint, 800-649-2424.
These agencies track scams and may issue public fraud alerts. Before deleting the message, forward it to us, AARP Vermont Fraud Watch, at the email address below. We will identify, to the extent possible, the source of the email message and the host organization for any web pages to request the disabling of accounts.
For those who wonder, we use several techniques to monitor and anticipate scams. Some of the information comes from established sources such as the Federal Trade Commission, Vermont Attorney General’s Office, Better Business Bureau, and AARP Fraud Watch, but much of what informs us is far less formal. Each week I receive several emails detailing individual experiences. The messages provide a great deal of insight and information on what is happening. I utilize specific personal email addresses to respond to suspected scams, which become lures for con-artists – I do not recommend this approach to anyone lacking advanced digital skills!
One of the best ways to anticipate the next round of scams is to simply look at the calendar. Events such as arrival of spring, Tax Season, Publisher Clearing House award presentations, and even upcoming holidays can alert you to the next round of scams.
Questions or comments? Email email@example.com.
Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a CATV program, Mr. Scammer, distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt.