• The Federal Trade Commission warns that scam artists are posing as religious leaders to solicit gift-card donations to bogus causes.
  • The fraudsters have defrauded worshipers out of nearly $2 million since 2014.
  • The FTC advises consumers never to disclose or share gift-card information with someone they don't know.

Fraudsters are targeting people of faith by posing as pastors, rabbis, priests, imams and bishops and asking them to donate gift cards for phoney causes, the Federal Trade Commission warns.

 

It's one of many versions of the so-called imposter scam, in which a swindler poses as a government official, business entity or other trusted figure and solicits donations to a bogus cause. 

"What's new about this is that they are using a different kind of trusted relationship," said Monica Vaca of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. 

It's similar to a fraudster posing as a friend or family member and tugging on people's heartstrings to unlawfully obtain funds. They might pretend they are raising money for sick children or to help support an ailing family member. 

"I guess scammers have figured out there is a trusted relationship a lot of people have at their church, and that's what's being exploited here," Vaca told CBS MoneyWatch. 

It's also often easy to obtain people's contact information through a religious organization. 

"A lot of worshippers' contact info, if they are active in the parish, sometimes that information is publicly available -- it's on the church website or the parish bulletin," Vaca said. 

Signs of a scam include electronic missives from bogus email addresses that aren't affiliated with a congregation, misspellings and no addressee. 

"The message may begin with a simple, 'Hi,' but doesn't include a recipient's name. There also may be spelling errors, including the pastor's name," FTC consumer education specialist Colleen Tressler wrote in a blog post. 

"Anyone who demands payment by gift card is always a scammer," the FTC warns on its site. 

Since 2014, scammers have bilked worshippers of nearly $2 million, nearly half of which was fraudulently obtained during the first six months of 2019, according to the agency. 

How the scam works

Here's how the con works: Fraudsters ask their unsuspecting targets to buy a gift card, usually from iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and other popular services. They then demand that victims give them the gift card number as well as its PIN, which sometimes needs to be scratched off. That gives scammers immediate access to the entire value of the card and lets them redeem it, "usually without a trace," according to the FTC. 

"It's really hard to get the money back, and it's anonymous. That's a big part of why scammers look for gift cards," Vaca said. 

The FTC advises consumers to file complaints when they believe they've been defrauded, which can help thwart scam artists. While it's often impossible to get your money back, most gift card providers also have hotlines for reporting scams. 

"If people ask really fast and call the gift card issuers right away, they can actually freeze the money, and sometimes people are successful in getting their money back," Vaca said. "But frequently, it's days before they notice it was a scam." 

Don't share gift-card info

For its part, Amazon warns consumers that "no legitimate sale or transaction will require you to pay specifically with gift cards," and that Amazon.com gift cards should never be used for payment outside of the retailer.

It also reiterates that gift card owners should never share card details, including claim codes, with others, as "the funds will likely be spent before you are able to contact law enforcement or Amazon."

 

Scammers are increasingly demanding that they be paid by gift card, according to the FTC. The agency found that from January through September of last year, gift and cash cards were used as a payment method in 26% of the fraud reports that included payment details, up from just 7% in 2015. 

"Con artists favor these cards because they can get quick cash, the transaction is largely irreversible, and they can remain anonymous," the FTC said. 

Forty-two percent of people who said they were duped by scammers used purchased iTunes or Google Play gift cards. 

"It's important to talk about it in your church, with your family, and all of the people you know because when people hear about a particular type of scam, they are much more likely to avoid losing money that way," Vaca said."If you get a weird-looking email from your pastor asking you to buy gift cards or something unusual, talk to someone else about it. Ask around, talk about it, because that's the way people help each other avoid losing money."