2020 April 22: Protecting Yourself from Scams

As if we do not have enough to worry about these days, the police are warning us that there has been a surge in the number of scams related to COVID-19.  Scams are a routine hazard of modern life, so it is worth reviewing how to recognize them and what to do when they happen.  It is easy to protect yourself from scams using a simple, common-sense approach.  The four-line summary is:

  • Use common sense

  • Beware of anonymous requests

  • Disengage as quickly as possible

  • Tell someone

What triggered this warning

We received the following warning from Brenda Wolff of the UCC Pacific Mountain region:
 

Please Be Aware: Email Scam Targets Churches

Over the last few months, email scammers have targeted churches in Pacific Mountain and Chinook Regions and across the country using staff and other email addresses available on church websites.  Here is the scenario:

People receive an email from a minister or another church staff person.  The email sounds kindly enough and the recipient asks if you would be kind enough to assist them or immediate attention is required to a matter.  Then when the recipient responds, they are asked to pick up a few gift cards for the person.  Unfortunately, some people have responded to the requests and have lost money. 

  1. If you receive such an email, hover your mouse’s cursor over the name of the sender and you’ll see the actual email address that the scammer has used.  It will be a different address than the minister or church staff person’s address.

  2. Be careful whose email addresses are on your website.  The scammers are pulling email addresses from websites.  You need the addresses of staff on websites or one key contact.  But church volunteers do not need their email addresses on church websites.

  3. Ensure that your church staff and key volunteers are aware of this scam.  We’re all busy.  It’s easy to fall prey to scammers.

  4. If the scammer is using a gmail address, you can report the scam to Google at       

https://support.google.com/mail/contact/abuse?hl=en

Regarding this particular scam, we do not have any contact information on our website except for the street address, phone number and e-mail address of the church itself. 

 

Scams can be as obvious as the Nigerian prince who needs your help to move his vast wealth to a safer country.  Really nasty scams sometimes start as plausible requests for a few hundred dollars that escalate over months to blackmail the victim out of their homes and savings.  

My sister once received a message claiming that our son had been arrested while on vacation in Mexico.  His phone, wallet and passport had been confiscated.  He desperately needed money to arrange bail and hire a lawyer.  The trial was scheduled for tomorrow, so he needed the money TODAY.  She recognized it as a scam, of course, and a single phone reassured her that he was at home working.

Never panic and never be tempted by easy money.  You are not alone and have many friends who will help.  There are simple ways to protect yourself and everyone around you.  

Why are we being targeted by scammers?

We in the church believe in the value of honesty, generosity and compassion, and we expect them from other people.  In addition, many in our congregation are older people who tend to be more generous, less critical of sad stories, and easier to scare than younger people.  Scammers know this and deliberately target older Christians because we are more likely to give them money than more cynical people.
 

Christians are called to be forgiving and to love one another, even our enemies, but the Bible also counsels us to be just, to be Good Stewards of the gifts God has given us, and to be Good Shepherds who will protect our neighbours from those who threaten them.  

The problem is more acute during our COVID-19 isolation.  We crave contact with other people and will be tempted to help someone in trouble.  The question is not whether the cause is worthy, but whether it is real.  Good stewardship requires the patience to complete our due diligence before we send money. 

One of the titles given to Jesus is Wonderful Counselor.  He is never praised as Gullible Sucker!  Few of us are gifted with Christ-like insight.  Far from it: we are called to imitate Christ in both his love and his wisdom.  Good stewardship requires us to practice a sensible caution when people ask for our help.

Crime does pay in the short run; it is why criminals do it.  Successful scammers are clever, so everyone falls for their tricks from time to time.  Do not be embarrassed by this!  Help is available.  
 

How to Recognize a Scam
 

Some good general principles are:

Use Common Sense

  1. If it seems too good to be true, it is probably a scam.

  2. If someone is offering easy money in exchange for your personal information, it is probably a scam.

  3. If someone demands payment in an untraceable currency like bitcoin or gift cards, it is definitely a scam.

  4. Threats that claim to come by phone or by e-mail from the police, government and corporate sources are scams; responsible organizations NEVER use this approach.

Beware of Anonymous Requests

Most scammers are anonymous, working by phone, by e-mail or through social media.  Even when they give a name, it is difficult to verify that they are who they claim to be.  It is a personal choice to give money to a beggar on the street, but at least you know who you are giving it to.  With scammers, you never know.

  1. If you cannot CLEARLY identify who is making the request and what organization they represent, it is likely a scam.  Real charities are easy to identify.

  2. Beware that it is easy to copy the format and images of messages from legitimate businesses, to spoof e-mail addresses, and to display legitimate phone numbers on Caller ID displays.  This valid information does NOT prove that the content of the message is legitimate.

  3. If they only need a few digits from your credit card to "verify your identity", those are the digits they need to complete the information they purchased from other scammers.  Do not give them that information.

If You are Targeted by a Scam

Disengage as Quickly as Possible

  1. Never react in panic.  Pause, take a breath and think.  Scammers want you to act impulsively.

  2. Hang up the phone or delete the e-mail.  Scammers do not deserve a polite answer.  Nor do they want you to waste their time.

  3. Do not click on a link in an e-mail unless you trust the source and are expecting the message.  A common scam looks like a sensible request from a trusted colleague (as in the example that Brenda gives, above)  but contains a link to a phony website.  Clicking on the link can install malware on your system or ask you to log in to a bogus site that will steal your credentials.

  4. NEVER give your bank or credit card information to people who contact you unexpectedly.

  5. NEVER send money to someone who calls you unexpectedly without first contacting them directly and independently to verify the issue.  If possible, contact their employer to verify their legitimacy.

  6. The sooner you can disengage, the less you will lose. 

Tell Someone and Ask for Help

  1. If you are uncertain, call a responsible friend or relative and ask for their advice.

  2. Organizations like Google, Facebook and Twitter may not be responsive, but they do have published standards of conduct that forbid criminal activity and are becoming increasingly active in restricting it.  Your report can save other people from the same attack.

  3. If you feel personally threatened, call the police. 

  4. If you have already lost money, you may need credit counselling.


You are not alone.  Never let embarrassment deter you from asking for help.  Ministers are trained in spiritual counselling and will discuss your problem confidentially.  Your friends in the congregation care about you and probably have their own experiences with scammers.  We will understand your distress.  Through the church and our various levels of government, we have a lot of resources available.


If you need help or reassurance, ask for it.
 

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