A new version of an older scam that targets active church members has reached northeastern Iowa.

In the old scam, churchgoers receive an email that looks like it belongs to their pastor. The email asks the member for a donation to the church, in the form of a virtual gift card, sent via a reply to the email.

The new scam is carried out via text messaging. A fraudster poses as the church’s pastor and sends texts to members of the church. Perpetrators use number-altering phone apps to make their numbers appear legitimate (as in, not from “Blocked Caller”).

Scammers harvest members’ mobile numbers from a congregation’s public resources, such as online newsletters. The idea is that members whose mobile numbers are listed in newsletters are quick to respond to urgent requests for help.

Through quick texts about a desire to quickly help a desperate person in need, perpetrators use social engineering to pressure recipients into providing virtual gift cards in amounts of $100 or more.

The text version of this scam has been making the rounds of churches nationwide since March, according to consumer advocacy groups. I learned of the local outbreak a few weeks ago during my church’s worship services; it was the basis of our pastor’s sermon.

A member had received a text from someone posing as our pastor. Through a series of texts, “Pastor” explained she was in a bind and needed funds to help someone. After a brief exchange, “Member” purchased a virtual gift card and provided “Pastor” with the access details.

After “Member” completed the task, a grandchild said it was likely a scam. Indeed, our pastor had not sent the texts. It was later determined that several members of the congregation had received similar texts.

As I listened to the sermon, I understood why “Member” took the request at face value. A swift response to someone’s need resonates with my image of our faith community.

Like other metro area congregations, we’re known to be passionate about outreach and generous with resources. If asked for help, we help. When we see an empty basket, we drop in free-will donations.

If that sounds similar to your congregation, I’m not surprised. Our local faith communities have a long history of ecumenical and interfaith outreach partnerships.

Perhaps that’s why several northeast Iowa congregations have reported these scam attempts.

I worry about how such scams could damage what seems to be a natural inclination to serve and help others.

It’s true: We must protect ourselves. The risk of financial fraud is on the rise for all age groups, in all areas of our lives, due mainly to the multiple points of contact to which we might open ourselves.

Our fears can offer clarity, making our questions into affirmations of purpose. We can guard against those who wish to hurt us. Their actions will not change who we are. A rise in scammers who prey upon faith communities will not cause us to withdraw from opportunities to be available to others.

Karris Golden writes The Courier’s weekly faith and values column. Email her at onfaith@karrisgolden.com.


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