Scammers target Florida Catholics

Inside Subprime: June 7, 2018

By Kerry Reid

Invoking the names of local parish priests, scammers in the Tampa Bay area have been requesting iTunes gift cards from parishioners and church staff. To add insult to injury, the emails seem to come directly from the priests’ accounts and ask that the gift cards be mailed to a different address than the parish, purportedly to help people in need.

In order to establish the victim’s trust, the first email (which uses a real priest’s name with a fake Gmail address) will ask the mark whether he or she is in the office. When they respond, they’re hit with a follow-up email with a gift card request.  

At least one minister sent an iTunes card for $200, said Father John Tapp of Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon. (In the Catholic Church, a minister can refer to lay people who are commissioned to perform certain duties on behalf of the church.) He alerted the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which has sent out warnings to all pastors in the five counties encompassed by the diocese.

In an article in the Miami Herald, the spokesman for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, Kevin Doll, said that no reports had been made to the office’s economic crimes unit regarding this most scam. However, he noted that gift cards are frequently part of scams of this kind.

In some instances, the scammer will pretend to buy something online and send a counterfeit check for more than the cost of the item. When the seller flags it to their attention, the scammer will play dumb, say they made a mistake, and request the amount “overpaid” to be returned in gift cards. The seller loses both the profit from the original item as well as the money paid out for the cards.

The Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg churches are far from the first to be hit with this kind of scam. Earlier this year, scammers targeted parishioners in Charlotte, North Carolina.

According to the Charlotte Observer, three lay leaders at St. Gabriel Church in Charlotte lost hundreds of dollars in a gift-card scam when they believed they were helping out at the behest of Rev. Frank O’Rourke, the church’s pastor. 

The emails purportedly from O’Rourke asked them to buy iTunes cards for a sick friend in the hospital, scratch off the validation codes, and then take a picture of them and return it via email. The “fake Father Frank” got $400 apiece from two parishioners and $200 from a third. In the case of the Charlotte scam, it’s likely, per Funk’s report, that the scammers got the parishioners’ emails off public websites for the churches.

These sorts of “phishing” operations, where crooks try to gain sensitive information by posing as someone known to the target, are all too common. Using the charitable inclinations of dedicated church people as a way of scamming seems even more cold-hearted. But while those who lost money in these gift-card scams usually can’t recoup their losses, their experiences can serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers a guide to ten things you can do to avoid fraud, and number one on the list is “Don’t send money or give out personal information in response to an unexpected request — whether it comes as a text, a phone call, or an email.” If you get such a request, follow up directly with the person allegedly making the request to find out if it’s legitimate. Don’t respond to the original email or call. The FTC also cautions that Caller ID won’t provide foolproof protection, as some scammers know how to fake that information.

The FTC’s Jennifer Leach, assistant director of the division for consumer and business education, wrote an alert on gift-card fraud May 31 advising that “Gift cards are for gifts, not payments.” If you think you’ve been the victim of a gift-card scam, contact the FTC and whichever company issued the card. If you act quickly, you might be able to get your money back from the company. But they need to know about it in any case.

Bottom line – if you’re giving money out of charitable instincts, make sure you know exactly who you’re sending it to and for what purpose. And never pay by gift card.

To learn more about scams and predatory lending in Florida, check out these related pages and articles:

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