St. Luke’s parish faces scammers pretending to be pastor asking for money
Reverend Charles Robinson was enjoying his sabbatical in the Bay Area, studying religious epistemology in the mornings and taking the younger members of his family on adventures in the afternoons.
Then, on the last week of a three-month respite, he heard that someone was trying to defraud his parish. Again.
Robinson is the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in the Snyderville Basin, and someone was using his name and cellphone number to attempt to bilk parishioners out of money. None of the three people who received the messages immediately fell for it, Robinson said, instead alerting him of the suspicious messages.
The parish had been hit last year with a similar scam, but that one used email and was more successful, netting hundreds of dollars from several parishioners, Robinson said.
He theorized he was targeted because of his position in the community.
“They assume I’m connected to a parish community that knows me and respects me and is likely to respond to me; that’s just my guess,” he said. “Maybe they’re singling out people that are associated with large groups of other people — it makes sense, from a deception point of view.”
Summit County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lt. Andrew Wright said the parish’s experience falls into an unfortunate trend in the area.
“We’re seeing a huge increase in electronic forms of fraud,” Wright said, “whether that comes over the phone or email, or someone calling and trying to gain access or remote access to your computer.”
He said the culprits are often overseas, which means local law enforcement has few options to respond. But he asked those who are victimized by scams to file reports with the Sheriff’s Office, as it helps them identify trends and could lead to an arrest.
In the case of St. Luke’s parish, the scammer sent text messages that looked like they were from Robinson’s cell phone. The message claimed to be from the pastor and asked for assistance with a pastoral emergency or to assist a family in need. Though these scams didn’t work, previous ones have ended up with a request to purchase gift cards and to relay that information to the scammers.
Wright said he hasn’t seen other religious communities being targeted, but that elderly people often represent a common mark.
“Unfortunately, the elderly seem to be preyed on more,” Wright said. “Elderly people are more trusting of people who call and claim to be from a specific organization or entity.”
But Wright noted a recent case at an outlet mall where a younger store manager was victimized by a similar scam. In both that case and the one that hit St. Luke’s, the scammers asked people to purchase gift cards and then relay the card numbers and PINs.
Wright said once people do that, the money is gone for good.
“That should be a huge red flag,” Wright said. “Never do (that kind of) financial transaction over the phone. Don’t go to a local retail establishment and provide numbers over the phone.”
With fraudsters wielding increasingly sophisticated technology that can mimic real numbers and even make caller identification functions display incorrect information, it’s important to confirm the request is legitimate.
“If there’s anything that feels funny about it, go directly to the source first before you respond,” Robinson said. “If somebody’s asking for money — call me, make sure it came from me.”
He said he hadn’t asked his colleagues whether other parishes have been similarly affected, but plans to do so.
“Being targeted through the internet and hacking is a relatively new scam, but people have been trying to scam religious communities since the beginning of time,” he said.
The reverend said the scam didn’t make him angry, but it did leave him feeling violated.
“I feel like someone snuck into my bedroom in the middle of the night and took pictures, or came into my house uninvited,” he said.
He wondered why people who clearly had technical proficiency would make their living deceiving people on the internet rather than getting a job.
“If I wanted to rob a bank, you used to have to live close to the bank,” the reverend said. “The internet has connected us globally and there are a lot of blessings with that. This is just the underside.”
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