Scammers targeting churchgoers with fake text messages from pastors

David Burke

9/23/2019

The Rev. David Livingston was stunned to learn over the weekend that someone claiming to be him was texting members of Fairway Old Mission United Methodist Church, asking for gift cards to benefit cancer patients. 

“There’s so much legitimate need in the world, and for legitimate need and people’s good hearts to be exploited is just disappointing,” Livingston said. “They’re violating the good nature of parishioners as well as pastors.” 

The Rev. David Livingston, seen here during the special session of the General Conference in February, is among the pastors who have been impersonated by scammers. File photo by Todd Seifert

Scams asking for gift cards have inundated conference pastors and staff — even some supposedly coming from Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. — in the past 18 months, but the method of scamming has slowly switched from emails to text messages. 

“Texting is overtaking email, certainly in the millennial generation and with the proliferation of smartphones, it is immediate,” said Ryan Sothan, outreach coordinator for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. 

The text scams have two demographics of targets, Sothan said: Millennials, who conduct all their business via smartphone and might not think twice about a request, and “very trusting seniors who are not digital natives.” 

Sothan said he understands why clergy are being used by scammers. 

“It is an intimate form of messaging from a trusted source, the individual’s church pastor,” he said. “It’s a form of an imposter scam, where somebody will make contact assuming a role, telling a story, urgency applied. And with urgency, there’s always typically some form of immediate payment required — in this case, gift cards.” 

Once the embedded number in a gift card is relayed — either through return text, verbally or a snapshot of the card — the scammer takes immediate possession of the money, he added. 

After a gift card is purchased, it is difficult to get the money back, according to April Bilby, a spokesperson for the Kansas Attorney General’s Office. 

“Even if they’ve purchased those cards and not given the information to the person who emailed, that money is very difficult to get off those cards,” Bilby said. 

Bilby said any suspicions should be relayed to the person supposedly sending the text or email. 

“That’s really the best defense, for them to call the church office and double check on exactly what it is,” she said. 

Gift cards, Bilby said, should not be considered as a substitute for currency. 

“Any time that happens, it is most likely a scam,” she said. “Never, never buy gift cards as payment for something. It’s unfortunate that people don’t understand.” 

Nebraska’s Sothan said those receiving a text should not text back and should not click on any links that might be contained. 

“Scammers are very good on embedding links that will take you to a non-secured website that is poised and primed to steal identity information or may unleash malware or a virus onto the phone,” he said. 

Instead, those receiving the texts are invited to forward them to 7726 (spelling out “SCAM”). It is a service created by many of the major wireless providers. 

In Nebraska, scams can be reported at protectthegoodlife.nebraska.gov. In Kansas, contact inyourcornerkansas.org

After notification on the Great Plains Conference’s Facebook page of the newest text scams, many pastors shared the message and added that they would never ask their congregants for gift cards. 

Livingston said he hoped it wouldn’t dampen his parishioners’ spirit to give to legitimate causes in the church. 

“We don’t want it to stop peoples’ willingness to give or their generosity,” he said. “We want people to be generous and also to be safe.” 

Contact David Burke, communications content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.

 


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