Scams targeting churches have been around for quite some time; scammers finally realized they could target synagogues, too.
The scam echoes the same components of the scams that have been targeting churches for years; an email spoofing a religious leader, requesting gift card purchase as a “favor” to help a congregant “in need”.
This scam has been reported across the country, from the Bay Area to Philadelphia; over 20 synagogues across the country have reported being affected by this scam. The scam starts with an email sent from an address that looks very similar to the rabbi’s email address. This information is frequently available online on the synagogue’s webpage, or it can easily be guessed.
The fake email is sent to the rabbi’s congregants, and it usually asks for a donation of online gift cards, an easy way for a con artist to grab some cash. Gift cards are difficult to track and incredibly simple to turn into bitcoin for easy cash. They are steadily growing to replace wire transfers as the online con artist’s payment of choice.
The emails are poorly constructed with odd grammar, strange capitalization, and misspellings. Also, the email address will usually be spoofed so that it will be slightly off from the real email address. Instead of firstname.lastname@example.org, it might say email@example.com or something just similar enough that you might not notice the change.
The emails try to play to the Jewish religion with subject lines and salutations such as “Shalom aleichem” and “Blessings”. The email will request that the recipient purchase a gift card, usually to help a congregant in need, because the rabbi is “busy”.
Even with these red flags, the scam can still work for the simple reason that congregants will always trust their clergy. The scam continues to hit churches across the country for this very reason.
The main thing you can do to avoid being taken in by these scams is to pay attention. There are almost always clues, especially with low sophistication scams like these. If something feels wrong, it probably is. Stop, think, and don’t reply; always avoid the interaction. Delete the email and let your clergy person know that they are being spoofed.
If you or a loved one has mistakenly paid a scammer with a gift card, you can report it to the card company at http://ftc.gov/complaint.
Editor’s note: Becky Rutherford works in information technology at Los Alamos National Laboratory.