Yesterday morning, I received an email that appeared to be from my pastor. I saw it come in and then disappear as my e-mail flagged it as delicious spam. I went to the spam folder, checked the name, email address, and message and it all appeared to be legit. I did censor my Pastor’s name and any locations and have not included any email addresses in these transcripts. Here’s what it said.
Hello How are you doing?
I need a favor from you
message me as soon as you get this
Rev. Xxxx Xxxxxxx
The grammar was a little bit off, but I didn’t think too much of it at the time. So I replied.
Good morning, Pastor.
I’m doing well. What can I do for you?
Within two minutes, I had this reply.
Thanks for getting back to me Brad,Am in meeting right now , and can not make calls , and due to my busy schedule, I can not get things done myself ,
I just need to get Steam card or eBay 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? and I will pay you back later in cash or check.
Let me know if you can get the card for these patients.
So, there are some things in here that should’ve tipped me off right away, but I didn’t immediately notice because I was also working on other things at the same time. The first thing was that the font was slightly larger than in the previous email. Also, the grammar, punctuation, spacing, and capitalization was worse. The Steam card and eBay card for women at the hospital should have tipped me off, but the email coming from a seemingly trusted source forced my brain to rationalize it.
Being in a meeting could lead to distracted typing causing the grammatical errors. The women in the hospital going through cancer could’ve been helping kids with cancer and that would explain the Steam card. I honestly don’t expect my Pastor to know about Steam or how it works, so I could totally understand why he would reach out to me for help with this. And the eBay mention, I figured he meant getting a Steam card on eBay. Again, I don’t really expect my Pastor to understand Steam so it made sense that he would be asking me for help getting this for the children with cancer that he didn’t mention.
Now, I’m willing to help the church out. But I’m also going to do my due diligence and be smart about it. So I asked some questions. One thing I did catch on in the previous email was he mentioned “today” in the email. My Pastor knows what kind of drive I have to get to church and that it’s one of the reasons I can’t make it every week. While I still hadn’t quite figured out it wasn’t him yet, I made sure to mention specific dates in my reply. Also please note how I offered to ship them. While I love modern convenience, I am still stubbornly old school about certain things and when it comes to gift cards, I’d rather have one put in somebody’s hand.
I think they have those at my local Wal-Mart. I could probably grab one tomorrow. If not, I imagine I could get one on Amazon. How much do you need? And do you need one Steam card or multiple. I’m in Xxxxxxx today and won’t be back to Xxxxxxxxx until late tonight. If I go through Amazon, I can probably have it shipped to an address of your choosing. I imagine you would have it by Thursday or Friday if I went through Amazon.
I made a quick search on Amazon after sending that and found that surprisingly, Amazon was not a good place to get Steam cards.
Scratch Amazon. Steam cards seem to be all from third party sellers on there. I can probably pick some up at Walmart tomorrow.
Within two minutes, I received this.
Ok good I will be so glad if you can get the for me.There are 20 of the women
but I’m thinking of $1000 worth of Steam Gift card or eBay gift Card only for 10 for now, ($100 or $50 denomination each. That’s 10 cards of $100 each).
Steam Gift card or eBayCard can be get at Best Buy, Kroger, Walmart or Target Store , and get it activated at the point of buying
Am out of the parish office for a pressing meeting. I only need you to scratch the cards,
then take a SNAP SHOT of the back each showing the PIN and have them sent to me here so I’ll just forward to them easily.
Will you be able to get the card for the patients right away?
Please let me know if that’s okay with you.
Also don’t forget to let me know if you would want me to pay you
back the $1000 in cash or check
And here is where the scammer drops his guard. The first thing you’ll notice is that the font is even larger this time. What purpose the ever-increasing font size serves is beyond me, but they scam thousands of people every year, so perhaps they know something I don’t. The next thing was asking for a thousand dollars worth of gift cards. My church is a small church. They’re very charitable, but I can’t see them fitting in their budget to drop $1,000 of Steam games for children that again were never mentioned.
And then came the next few major giveaways. It suddenly wasn’t just Steam. eBay was confirmed as well as having Best Buy, Kroger, Target, and Wal-Mart were added. The nearest Best Buy is at least an hour or more from our church and the nearest Kroger is over 250 miles away. There absolutely no way the church would be requesting any of them, especially not from me who is much farther away than they are from Target or Wal-Mart. And then they asked for me to just send the pin on the back of the cards. Again, that’s another dead giveaway.
At first, I was very tempted to reply with, “Pastor, are you trying to scam me?” It was so hard to resist sending that. Instead, I decided to reply as I would to my actual Pastor to get that final piece of proof. I just wanted that one last bit of information to confirm everything I suspected.
Oh, I don’t have that much in my account. I could maybe do $100 or $200. I’m sorry. We’ve been scraping by paycheck to paycheck this year. Having to replace the well and a car as well as other unexpected repairs put a big hurt on our finances. I’m really sorry, but I don’t have that kind of money.
My Pastor would’ve already known this and wouldn’t have asked me to drop a grand. If it was really him, he’d apologize for forgetting about that and thank me for my time. If it was a scammer (it clearly was), he’d still be excited about getting what little money I had. Within two minutes, he replied.
Okay good get the Ebay gift card of $200 in $100 denominations
And forward the pictures or the codes of the cards to me
The font was back to normal. He was no longer requesting a Steam card for children that were never mentioned. He just wanted to shop on eBay with what little money I could offer. I had my proof and I sent him one final reply.
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Repent! Go, and from now on sin no more.
I haven’t received another reply. He must have realized the jig was up and decided to not put any more effort into me. It was around this time my Pastor sent an email advising everyone to ignore emails from that Gmail account as it wasn’t him. I asked him if it was an account he had that was hacked or one created in his name. That was not an email address that was his, but it was well crafted to appear to be from him. Someone had hacked his actual email, got ahold of his contacts list and then set up a new account in an effort to scam.
The ruse was well crafted and took an approach I hadn’t really quite run into before; that is pretending to be someone you know and even taking careful planning to craft the email around something they do, in this case, helping people. I wonder if everyone got the same email or if the scammer had learned enough about each of us to ask us the right questions. Did everyone get requests for Steam cards or was it just me? I can’t see some of the people in my church really knowing anything about Steam. In this case, I could totally see Pastor asking me for assistance with Steam if it were for sick children. I really can’t think of anyone else in the church off the top of my head that would be an immediate go-to in regards to Steam. This, of course, begs the question, did anyone else get requests for Steam cards? I’d love to know how generic or specific this targeting was.
Another thing to take note of is how the brain seems to ignore certain flags if it appears to be coming from a trusted source. I’m glad that as I asked questions, the flags became more and more apparent. Still, this must be a method that works and I wonder how often people just fall for this without question. Clearly, enough for these scammers to do it.
I think there are some good key things to take away from this. When they are asking for something, is it something they would have trouble with? What I mean is, could they easily do this themselves or would the task, in particular, be something they may be confused with. In this case, it was. However, would you also have trouble with the task at hand and would it be reasonable for them to come to you about it?
Do they normally type like that or do they normally communicate via email? If you answered no to either of them, that’s a red flag. If it’s needed by a certain time, challenge it. Offer a time that works better for you. If they are insistent, it may be a scammer. Some situations work better over the phone or in person. If they are unwilling to meet in person or talk over the phone, that’s a huge red flag.
Look for variances in the story. Do things change over time? Do they ask for things that simply don’t exist in your area? Do they seem to not know things that the should simply just know? Do you say you are unable to help and they quickly urge for less than the initial amount?
Basically, look for any clue that seems out of the ordinary. If even one piece does not fit in line with their character and habits, no matter how minute, it may not be them.