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The ongoing remote world we’re living in has many of us getting used to doing more of our activities virtually. When we can’t be face to face, it makes rich targets for adept scammers.

One trending scam, reported in several states and just emerging in Iowa, is when a criminal impersonates clergy. The crook spoofs the e-mail address of a given faith leader and sends a message to a congregant requesting a favor. They will claim they are busy or out of town and just need you to purchase a dozen gift cards that will be used to help congregants in need. All you need to do is buy them (say, $100 each) and email a picture of the front and back of the cards. And of course, you will be reimbursed.

“Just take a moment, stop, and think, ‘Would this person really ask me to do this?’” says Brad Anderson, AARP Iowa State Director. “Contact the person yourself and get the validation they are who they say they are. And if you are ever asked for gift cards from anyone, just hang up, it’s a scam.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) puts clergy scams in the larger category of impostor frauds, which triggered nearly a half-million complaints nationwide — and nearly $1.2 billion in losses — in 2020. The category includes impostors posing as relatives, romantic interests, government employees, computer technicians, and others.

How the Scam Works:

1. Criminals spoof the identity of a religious leader or someone at a house of worship.

2. They text or email congregants about a member of the community in need of help.

3. There's always an excuse as to why the religious leaders can't help at that moment.

4. The target of the scam is asked to buy gift cards and then send the cards’ serial numbers and PINs through a call or digital photo.

5. The criminals disappear and the victims realize they won’t be reimbursed.

The Federal Trade Commission reports that gift cards have been the most common form of payment in scams since 2018. Anytime you are directed to pay a debt or other obligation with a gift card, it is a scam.

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