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Scammers Target Seniors by Posing as Clergy

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Nearly one in three adults say they or someone they know has been asked to purchase a gift card as payment in scams, a common method employed by criminals to steal money. (BFIShadow/Flickr)
Nearly one in three adults say they or someone they know has been asked to purchase a gift card as payment in scams, a common method employed by criminals to steal money. (BFIShadow/Flickr)
 By Eric Galatas - Producer, Contact
April 12, 2021

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- AARP's Fraud Watch Network is warning Wyoming residents about a new take on an age-old scam targeting older Americans across the country.

Seth Boffeli, advisor for the AARP Fraud Watch Network, said criminals are taking advantage of people's sense of charity during the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Posing as pastors, priests, rabbis and imams, scammers send texts or emails to congregants with a sob story - a cancer patient strapped for cash, or someone whose pipes burst and can't afford repairs - and ask victims to help out by purchasing gift cards.

"It's a standard imposter scam," Boffeli explained. "They're impersonating someone who is a religious or a faith leader, somebody that you already know and trust."

Boffeli said there's always an excuse as to why the religious leader can't help at that moment: They are out of town or otherwise unable to pick up the actual gift card.

Once a victim hands over the gift card number and PIN, their money is virtually impossible to recover.

Boffeli emphasized it's important to report incidents by calling the Fraud Network's helpline toll-free at 877-908-3360.

Preying on the prayerful has become a growing nuisance during the pandemic. Clergy scams used to be reported to the network once or twice a month, but Boffeli said since the global health crisis, there have been five or six reports a week across multiple states.

"And what we see when we look across the country is most of these scams start off in one or two states, and slowly but surely make their way across the country," Boffeli noted. "So this is something really that everybody should be on the lookout for."

Boffeli noted gift cards have become the currency of choice for scammers, in part because churches routinely collect gift cards at Thanksgiving and other holidays for struggling families.

Boffeli stressed the best way to protect yourself is to not engage if you receive a text or email. You also can call your place of worship, and let them know someone is posing as clergy, so the rest of the congregation can be warned.

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