Online scam targets priests, parishioners

| Doug Hovelson | May 1, 2019 | 0 Comments
Email and text scammers posing as parish priests are requesting that people purchase gift cards or other pre-paid cards and provide the access codes. The scam has targeted parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and across the country.

Email and text scammers posing as parish priests are requesting that people purchase gift cards or other pre-paid cards and provide the access codes. The scam has targeted parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and across the country. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MARIA WIERING

Phony email and text messages sent by con artists pretending to be priests are showing up in computers and cell phones of parishioners and parish employees in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The scammers want recipients to respond to what appears to be an urgent and poignant message from their pastor requesting help in obtaining hundreds of dollars’ worth of pre-paid gift cards to give to a sick friend.

Similar schemes have been reported in dioceses across the country, including Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Nebraska.

The scams require recipients to reveal the digital access codes printed on the gift cards, allowing cyber-criminals to sell the cards online or on the street, police said.

Some parishioners — nobody knows exactly how many — have fallen victim to the schemes, losing money on their well-intentioned gift card purchases, said Joe Kueppers, chancellor of civil affairs for the archdiocese.

A number of digital assaults have been reported in the archdiocese. Father Michael Creagan, pastor of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, said he spotted one version as many as “two or three years ago.” The archdiocese started warning parish leaders of such schemes late last summer, Kueppers said.

Blog posts on the website of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul warned of an attack in November. KSTP-TV in St. Paul reported March 21 on scammers trying to fleece parishioners at Nativity and at Our Lady of Grace in Edina.

A startled and worried parishioner at St. Bartholomew in Wayzata called Kathy Salman, parish director of communications, March 30, wondering if Father Michael Van Sloun, the parish’s pastor, might really be emailing her with a request to purchase Google Play cards for an ailing friend. Father Van Sloun was not sending such emails, Salman said, after some quick digital sleuthing on her part.

She verified that the parish’s website had been hacked by anonymous intruders. They harvested not only the publicly available email addresses of staff employees, but also email addresses of parishioners that were supposedly blocked from outside view. They even grabbed up parishioner names and email addresses in the parish newsletter.

“I could see exactly which email addresses were tapped,” she said. “We are very careful now how we put email and even phone numbers” on the parish website.

Typically, the digital con artists ask recipients to purchase Google Play or Apple iTunes gift cards available at many retail stores in amounts up to $500, based on reports from various parishes.

Scammers of this type usually next ask recipients to email or text — or even call in with — proof of the digital access code stamped on the cards, said Edina Police Detective Dave Lindman.

Tracking down online gift card fraud is very difficult; caution and prevention is the best defense, Lindman said.

Parishes are doing what they can to protect their parishioners from such scams. Everyone should know that “no priest will send out an email message asking for gift cards,” Salman said.

“Please be vigilant and even be skeptical of unknown cell numbers. Even if the texter has a familiar name and even if the text uses your name,” reads in part a cautionary April 15 blog post on Nativity’s website.

Nativity’s blog noted that some parishioners had received fraudulent text messages supposedly sent from the church’s pastor, Father Patrick Hipwell, that opened with: “Hi, it’s Father Patrick. Are you available to text? I need to get an (sic) Google Play card of $500.00 for my friend going through cancer … can you get it from any store now? I’ll pay you back.”

In March, the archdiocese provided direction in its e-newsletter to parish leaders alerting them to the ongoing scam and encouraging them to contact their parish’s IT professionals if they encounter it. “The fraudulent emails are more difficult to detect on a mobile device, as it is not immediately evident in a mobile view that the ‘pastor’s’ email address is not correct,” it warned.

Victims of online fraud can report the crime on a Federal Trade Commission complaint page at ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

Fraud also can be reported and more information about avoiding fraud can be found at the FBI’s site ic3.gov, said Kevin Smith, public affairs officer for the Minneapolis FBI Field Office.

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.


Reporting Scams

The Federal Trade Commission has sent out alerts about scams like those experienced in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and elsewhere in the U.S. Priests and pastors will never email parishioners looking for gift cards and would never send a business email from a private account such as AOL or Gmail.

“Scammers are good at convincing people there really is an emergency, so lots of people have made the trip to the Walmart or Target or CVS to buy gift cards to send these callers. And scammers love gift cards — it’s one of their favorite ways to get your money. These cards are like giving cash — and nearly untraceable, unless you act almost immediately,” wrote Jennifer Leach, assistant director in the FTC’s Division of Consumer and Business Education, in a blog post for the federal agency.

She added that gift cards could never be used as payment for any kind of emergency such as a car repair or plane ticket.

If someone has fallen victim to this type of scam, there is some help, but the victim has to act quickly.

“If you’ve bought a gift card and lost money to someone who might be a scammer, tell the company who issued the card,” Leach said in her blog post. The contact info might be on the card, but might require some research.

“Call or email iTunes or Amazon or whoever it was,” she continued. “Tell them their card was used in a scam. If you act quickly enough, they might be able to get your money back. But — either way — it’s important that they know what happened to you. And then please tell the FTC about your loss. Your report helps us try to shut the scammers down.”

The bottom line, say experts, is that people should always verify in person or by phone any request involving money or personal information. Email and text messages are convenient, but anonymous and easily created by crooks.

— Catholic News Service

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