Gift Card Scammers Pose as Pastors to Target Victims

Scammers pressure victims into purchasing iTunes or Google Play gift cards as payment. TriMedia photo.

How to Avoid Falling Victim

Marshfield, WI (OnFocus) To pressure their targets into purchasing gift cards and handing over the numbers, scammers will often pose as an acquaintance or authority figure.

A Wisconsin Rapids woman this week received texts from someone claiming to be the pastor of a local church, asking her to send pictures of three $100 gift cards and their pin numbers as a favor for a cancer patient, promising that she would be repaid.

On the surface, the scam seems obvious. But through a variety of creative tactics, scammers can convince potential victims that they are who they say they are.

A scammer poses as a pastor. Submitted photo.

“They used some language that might lead me to believe this was the person they claimed to be,” she said. “They knew I was associated with this church and used the pastor’s full name.”

Luckily, the woman had heard of gift card scams before and instead, contacted the pastor directly and then reported the incident to law enforcement.

These types of scams are far from a rare occurrence. “It’s a daily story around here, unfortunately,” said Lt. Darren Larson, Marshfield Police Department. “We get a fair amount of people who come in who have already responded and are now looking for advice on how to handle it.”

In June, a Marshfield woman bought $300 in Google Play cards after receiving an email from her church pastor before discovering it was a fraudulent account when she went to deliver them in-person. Last November, a Marshfield man was convinced to buy $500 in iTunes gift cards after a scammer impersonated his boss through text message.

Both discovered the scam before it was too late, but others have sustained significant financial losses by agreeing to send over the numbers on the back of the card. And once that happens, there’s little that law enforcement can do.

“Once they obtain that data on the back of a cards, they’re free to just cash those out, and it’s gone forever. There’s no way to track it — that’s the challenge,” said Lt. Larson. “Once they provide that information on the back of the gift card, [the cards] are redeemed within seconds of that call and the accounts are depleted. There’s absolutely no means for us to track them.”

A further frustration for law enforcement is that many of the scams originate outside the United States, making tracking impossible for agencies. Because the gift cards were purchased legitimately, credit card companies are also unable to provide assistance in these cases.

“The best line of defense we have is people being educated and recognizing the scams,” he said.

Scammers cast a wide net in search of victims and will use just enough information in their messages to make it seem like they are legitimate. They may pretend to be an IRS agent collecting back taxes or even a law enforcement officer requesting bond money, then ask for payment through iTunes gift cards, which are easily transferred anonymously.

In reality, gift cards cannot be used to pay taxes, bail, or court fines, making the requests highly suspect. “Legitimate organizations do not use gift cards to process their payments,” said Lt. Larson.

When the scammer is pretending to be someone in authority, it causes more anxiety to the victim who might doubt the legitimacy of the message, but is afraid to question it. In the case of a pastor asking for gift cards, one can safely assume that the message is fraudulent.

“As a general rule, pastors never engage in such fundraising practices,” said Pastor Daryn Bahn of Christ Lutheran Church. “Everything is done in established ways and according to congregational policy.”

If someone receives a message that they suspect is a scam, the surest course of action is to not respond, then to block the number or email, or hang up. Engaging with the scammer isn’t effective at stopping them — even when the phone is handed over to a police officer.

“It’s amazing how bold some of these scammers are. They are very used to hearing no, so that is not going to deter them,” said Larson.

He recommends recipients of these messages to trust their intuition and pause before taking any action. Discuss the message with another person for reassurance, or call or stop by the police department for assistance.

Scams can be reported to IC3.gov or a local police agency. “We’re being educated all the time when we receive these types of scams. They’re so prevalent,” he said. “They’re always evolving.”

Those who have fallen for a scam may be reluctant to report what happened due to a fear of others finding out and embarrassment over what, in hindsight, seems like an obvious scam. However, even police officers have fallen fall victim.

“Nobody’s immune,” said Larson.

Ultimately, the best way to avoid falling for a scam is to be educated about what to look for. With that comes the empowerment to hang up the phone and walk away.

“In fact, I encourage them to,” he said.

Kaylin S
Author: Kaylin S

Kaylin Speth is a Marshfield native with a bachelor's degree in English from UW-Green Bay. She enjoys highlighting the many great things happening in the community and bringing to life the untold stories. Email the team at [email protected]