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Scammers targeting faith based communities with fake text messages from pastors; 6 tips from the FTC on how to handle suspected scams

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By Charlotte Smith

In recent days local church goers have reported receiving text messages from their pastor asking for gift cards to benefit cancer patients. The Chief Deputy, Mac Warner with the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the text messages were part of a wide-spread scam.

Amanda Lancaster of Elizabethtown reported receiving a suspicious text from someone claiming to be her pastor earlier this week.

Although the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends not to text scammers back Amanda took a risk. She said, “I played along with the situation to see if it was someone local and to get justice.”

The text came from a local number, but Amanda noticed it was not her pastor’s number. In the text the scammer asked Amanda to buy a $200 gift card for him to give to a cancer patient and instructed her to take photos to send to him to be able to use the funds.

See the screenshots of the texts below.

“I’m afraid of who else they may do this to, especially older people who are subject to be more valuable to these criminals,” Amanda said.

The scam is not just in Bladen County, but nationwide. In 2019, a Rev. David Livingston with Fairway Old Mission United Methodist Church was stunned to learn his congregation was receiving similar texts asking for gift cards to benefit cancer patients.

“There’s so much legitimate need in the world, and for legitimate need and people’s good hearts to be exploited is just disappointing,” Livingston said. “They’re violating the good nature of parishioners as well as pastors.”

According to a 2019 report, the text scams have two demographics of targets, Millennials, who conduct all their business via smartphone and might not think twice about a request, and “very trusting seniors who are not digital natives.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has important recommendations that might save you, the consumer, from being ripped off.

This scam is avoidable. Below are six (6) tips from the FTC on how to handle suspected scams:

  • Delete random texts, especially those that ask you to enter a special code, or to confirm or provide personal information by following a link to a website. These are almost always bogus sites that exist to access your information.
  • Never give your personal or financial information out online. Be guarded with your personal information, and treat it as if it were cash. Refrain from entering your Social Security, bank account, or credit card numbers online or by phone to someone who gets in touch with you. And remember, no legitimate company will ever text or email you asking for your personal information.
  • Report spam texts to your carrier. Copy the original message and forward it to 7726 (SPAM) free of charge, if you are an AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, or Sprint subscriber.
  • Don’t text back. Legitimate companies won’t ask you to verify your identity through unsecured channels, like text or email.
  • Don’t click on any links within the message. Links can install malware on your device and take you to spoof sites to try to get your information.
  • Forward any suspicious emails or texts to the FTC via spam@uce.gov. The FTC recommends that you also cc: the organization impersonated in the email/message — a step that might give the scammer some pause before going ahead with their scheme. If at all possible, include the full email header. Header information is typically hidden, but a quick search for “full email header” and the name of your email service (for example, Yahoo) will give you the steps necessary to find that information.

Screenshots of scam text messages:

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