Rabbi Joshua Heller was surprised Monday morning when he learned emails had been sent to members of his congregation asking them to purchase gift cards from eBay and a popular makeup store.
The emails appeared to have come from the rabbi himself, which seemed strange to several members of B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs.
Within two hours, Heller warned all the members of his synagogue to disregard the requests for gift cards, which was an obvious scam. He also alerted law enforcement.
Now, Georgia’s attorney general is cautioning worshipers at churches, synagogues and mosques across the state to beware of scammers posing as their religious leaders in emails in an attempt to steal money.
In a news release sent Wednesday, Chris Carr warned that a variety of emails are being sent to trick congregants into purchasing gift cards online.
“Cybercrimes such as these are popular with scammers because the internet makes it easy for them to hide their true identity,” Carr said. “Consumers should be very suspicious of any emails asking them to send money — even if they appear to come from a trusted source.”
According to the AG’s office, impostors are setting up Gmail accounts that display the actual names of a rabbi, priest, pastor or imam. The fraudsters then email members of a congregation asking for emergency donations to help someone in need. The requests instruct worshipers to purchase iTunes, eBay or Sephora gift cards and reply with the numbers on the backs of those cards.
Rev. Katie Christie, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lilburn, said the scam emails sent to members of her leadership team Monday included her name and photo.
“They say, ‘I need your help, but I’m busy. Please email me back as soon as you get the chance,’” Christie said. “Then somebody emails back and they say, ‘Oh, I need eBay gift cards for people with cancer.’”
Christie said some members of her leadership team believed the emails were real and called her right away, eager to help in any way they could.
Her congregation has been targeted in the past, but Christie said the phishing scams have really picked up since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“Especially right now when we’re not meeting together, people jump at the chance to help,” she said. “I feel angry and I feel violated, especially since they’re using my picture in the emails.”
Each time her congregation is targeted, Christie reminds the roughly 500 worshipers that the church will never solicit gift cards from members.
Heller said the phishing attempts are fairly common, though he isn’t sure how the scammers got access to his synagogue’s membership directory.
“Nobody seems to know how they’re getting these email addresses,” he said, reading from one of the emails that was sent to a member:
“Thanks for getting back to me. I just need to get Sephora cards today for some women going through cancer at the hospital, but I can’t do that right now because of my busy schedule. Can you get it from any store around you, possibly now, and I will pay you back later in cash or check?”
There were a couple of variations of that email sent to congregants, but the rabbi said he isn’t aware of any members falling victim to the scam.
“It’s disappointing that they are taking advantage of people’s desire to do good ... I’m angry and upset, but I also understand this is the nature of the world we live in,” Heller said. “This is a time where we have people in our congregation who are affected economically and we are doing different things to help people who might need assistance, but calling in the pin numbers on gift cards isn’t one of them.”
Georgians who have been targeted or lost money in the latest scam are urged to contact local law enforcement or the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division at consumer.ga.gov or 404-651-8600. Recipients are also asked to forward the phony emails to the Federal Trade Commission’s spam database at firstname.lastname@example.org and let their pastor, rabbi or imam know so they can warn their congregations.
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