Parishes throughout the U.S. and Canada are reporting on the scam which involves the sending of a fake email from a priest or other church official asking a parishioner to purchase electronic gift cards to be used as gifts on sick calls or fundraising events, etc.
The following is a typical email, which was sent to a parishioner here in Pennsylvania.
“Hi Pat, I need a favor from you. Email me back as soon as possible.” It bore the signature of her pastor, Father John.
When she responded, she was told: “Sorry for disturbing you but I need to get an iTunes gift card for a friend of mine going through cancer at the hospital but I can’t do this now because I'm currently busy. Can you get it from any store around you? I want to make it as a surprise for him. I’ll pay you back. Let me know if you can get the card for me. Blessings, Fr. John.”
Not realizing this was a scam, Pat said she would get the cards from a local supermarket and asked if she could drop them off at the rectory. The scammer responded: “ . . . Send the photo of the card pin to my email. I can easily forward the card to him immediately.”
Thankfully, something about the exchange gave her pause and she decided to call Father John to find out what was going on. It was then that she learned it was a scam. The pastor told her that he had been alerted to it by another local pastor whose parishioners were also being targeted.
A brief investigation uncovered reports of similar scams are popping up all over the U.S.
For example, the Tampa Bay Times reported in May on the presence of the scam in the Tampa Bay area where parishioners of Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon were impacted. Father John Tapp told the Times that some of his staff had received requests for gift cards.
"We have someone who monitors our website, our Facebook page. She noticed some activity. … What someone is doing is making up an email address with something that is approximate to my name and would go through a list of our ministers and contact them."
He said the emails contained fake requests from priests asking for iTunes gift cards to be sent to someone in need.
"One of our ministers did buy a card and sent it off. I think it was for $200," Tapp said.
The man ultimately reported the incident to local police.
"It’s really aggravating, but it is obviously very clever, because they are targeting faithful people who are typically generous people and using a public figure in the pastor," he said. “It’s really very diabolical.”
Apple has confirmed that a scam involving iTunes gift cards is currently taking place.
“Regardless of the reason for payment, the scam follows a certain formula: The victim receives a call instilling panic and urgency to make a payment by purchasing App Store & iTunes Gift Cards from the nearest retailer (convenience store, electronics retailer, etc.). After the cards have been purchased, the victim is asked to pay by sharing the 16-digit code on the back of the card with the caller over the phone,” Apple reports.
Unfortunately, for too many people, the warning comes too late and they find themselves bilked out of hundreds of dollars.
According to the Charlotte Observer, parishioners at two Catholic churches in the area received emails that appeared to be from their pastors. They were asked to buy the cards for their pastor to give to a friend who was suffering from cancer and were instructed to scratch-off the validation codes, take a picture, then send it in an email.
As a result, a few of the victims — three lay leaders at St. Gabriel — ended up losing hundreds of dollars to the imposter claiming to be the Rev. Frank O'Rourke, the church's pastor since 2007.
"The fake Father Frank," as one of the victims now calls the emailer, got $400 each from two parishioners and $200 from another.
As soon as they became aware of the scam, however, the church sent an email blast to all of its 3,400 families warning them not to respond to these requests and to delete the emails immediately. They also asked parishioners to call the parish office to confirm the legitimacy of a request from any parish clergy.
If you, or anyone you know has been victimized by this scam, they are encouraged to contact the FTC as well as their local law enforcement office.
Click here for a list of 10 things you can do to avoid becoming a victim of fraud.
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