Monday, October 14, 2019 - Updated: 3:46 pm
An increasing number of parishioners have reported receiving bogus e-mails and text messages from scammers posing as their priests and asking for gift cards.
Never respond to such a request, said Deacon Kevin Lander, director of operations and information technology for the diocese.
“Your pastor is not going to send you a message out of the blue, asking you for money or gift cards,” he said. “If you receive one of these messages, don’t click on anything and don’t respond to it. Instead, immediately let your clergy know that this scam is occurring in your parish so your parish can take steps to protect parishioners.”
Delete the messages. Anyone who has responded and sent gift cards should report it to the police.
This scam is used nationwide against church members of many religious traditions. The scammers gather recipient e-mail addresses from the internet, church publications and other means. Then they create an e-mail address that closely resembles the address of their pastor, but actually comes from a major free e-mail provider, such as @gmail or @yahoo.
“When you open the fraudulent e-mail, it may have a picture of Father, lifted from the parish website, so that it looks like an official parish e-mail,” Deacon Lander said.
The text or e-mail will urge you to respond quickly, using gambits such as “I am in a meeting, are you available? Write back.”
“As soon as someone responds, ‘Yes, Father,’ the die is cast and the scam is ready to be played,” he said.
The recipient then receives an appeal for help. The message may say that the priest has visited someone who is dying and needs $500 in gift cards, naming a popular brand such as Amazon or Paypal. It will ask something like, “Would you please pick these up for me — I will pay you right back — let me know when you have them.”
If a well-meaning parishioner buys the card, the scammer next asks them to scratch off the back of the card and send the numbers. Once this is done, the scammer will write back to thank the parishioner and make claims about good work that the gift cards can do.
“The scammer will say that there is now a more urgent need, and convince the individual to buy more cards. This typically continues until the individual calls Father and realizes that this is a scam that the priest had nothing to do with,” Deacon Lander said.
“Conversations with law enforcement and our own research have convinced our diocesan IT department that this is a huge problem in our country. It’s terribly sad because once someone recognizes that they have given these cards to a scammer, the money is gone and is almost never recovered. Law enforcement is almost never able to identify and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
When clergy make legitimate requests for gifts for the church and charitable causes, they do so in person. Genuine giving campaigns are promoted from the pulpit, in parish bulletins and mailings, so that parishioners know to expect a request. If a parishioner isn’t sure whether a financial request is legitimate, he or she should contact the parish.
“If you receive any request that you have questions about, call your parish office to ask before you do anything,” Deacon Lander said. “If it’s a scam request, delete it without clicking on anything.”