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Scams targeting the
Church: Being aware of red flags

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The Reverend Grahame Bowland Digital Mission Project Officer

Jesus said: ‘Beware that no one leads you astray’ (Matthew 24:4) This teaching of our Lord has found a sad new meaning in recent times. We have become aware of scammers targeting worshipping communities in increasingly sophisticated ways.

The Church is a large public institution – and as such, personal relationships and trust are important. Fraudsters seek to take advantage of the trust that we offer one another through various forms of deception. This article provides some advice on what to watch out for – the red flags that might indicate that someone is trying to deceive or defraud you.

Most commonly scammers will contact you via email, text message (SMS, WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook, Messenger) or on the phone. In recent times they have attempted to impersonate clergy of the Diocese. They haven’t compromised our IT systems – they don’t need to. Instead, they simply set up a ‘plausible looking’ online identity and pretend to be well-known, trusted people.

Just after Christmas I was contacted via email by someone impersonating a fellow priest, asking me for urgent help. The email address they had created looked like the sort of email address a priest has; they used the correct clerical title; and the email even signed off with a Christmastide blessing. The scammer sought to manipulate me by creating a sense of urgency – and, not checking further, I sent a reply asking what help they needed. A few minutes later, I received a request to purchase gift cards for a cancer patient. That was a huge red flag: I knew that I was being scammed.

The Australian Government provides some advice on avoiding scams on their website – It’s worth taking a look and familiarising yourself with the ways in which scammers seek to manipulate people into providing them with money or information. They note the issue of ‘phishing’, where a scammer will send messages that look like they come from a person you trust. That’s the scenario that I ran into.

Scammers will do what they can to make it seem like we must act urgently – they put pressure on us so that we’ll act without checking things out first. It is a major red flag if anyone claiming to be from the Church contacts you out of the blue asking for you to send them money, for gift cards, or to pay a bill. Similarly, if someone claiming to be from the Church contacts you unexpectedly asking for sensitive information, such as bank or credit account details, that is a major red flag. Don’t respond to these requests without taking the time to verify that they are both valid and appropriate.

If you are contacted out of the blue by someone claiming to be a bishop, priest, deacon, or minister (or claiming to hold any other leadership position), it is a good idea to take the time to make sure that it really is them. If in doubt, find the contact details of the person independently. You might check the website of the parish, school, or agency that they minister in, and then make contact with them yourself.

Remember that scammers will make it seem like you must act now, or there will be some urgent consequence. They prey upon the goodness of our communities. We shouldn’t respond to this reality by becoming a fearful, closed-off, disconnected Church – but maintaining an appropriate level of caution will keep us safer. As Saint Paul encourages us in the First Letter to the Corinthians: ‘Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Let all that you do be done in love’ (1 Corinthians 16:13).

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