CAPTION: The advice is to always check the email address if you receive an email that seems out of the ordinary in any way

Devon Churches Scam Emails Warning

Posted: 24th January, 2024

Churches in Devon are being warned to be on the alert for an email scam in which fake emails are being sent out which look like they are from a bishop or the local vicar.

In fact they are a fraud, designed to trick recipients into doing the sender a ‘favour’ by buying online gift cards for them.

Some people have lost thousands of pounds before realising their bishop or vicar has not really emailed them and they have been conned.

Last year staff in York Diocese received fake emails purporting to be from the Archbishop of York. Diocesan staff in Exeter have also received similar emails.

Parishes targeted

We have also had recent examples in two mission communities in the Diocese of Exeter. In one case a church volunteer was conned into spending £3600 on Amazon vouchers believing he was responding to an urgent request from the vicar.

The vicar said “I received a couple of emails from him saying he had bought the gift cards I wanted. I thought it was strange, so I phoned him. I thought he was joking when he said he had bought six £600 gift cards. I heard the helplessness in his voice when he realised what had happened. I felt so sorry for him, especially because he had done it out of trust in me. It’s been very difficult.”

In another mission community, a family spent £1500 on gift cards before realising it was a scam. Fortunately, their bank agreed to reimburse them most of the money, but this is not guaranteed and not every bank will do this.

How to spot scam emails

Action Fraud, a national police scheme, offers the following advice about scam emails:

The first email typically reads something like “[name], are you free at the moment?” or it may be more detailed, such as “Do you have a moment I have a request I need you to handle discreetly. I am currently busy… so no calls just reply to my email.”

A reply then draws the recipient into a dialogue in which they are encouraged to buy vouchers, and ultimately send images of their serial and security numbers to the fraudster.

If you think you have received one of these messages, please report it to the police via their non-emergency line 101.

If it is a church-related email please also inform the Diocese of Exeter Communications Team: communications@exeter.anglican.org, so other people who may be affected in a particular mission community can be warned to be on the alert.

Sophisticated Technology

Although the language in scam emails is often a give-away, as they become more sophisticated, so they manage to better replicate people’s writing styles and turns of phrase. “AI” will only speed this process.

The advice is to always check the ‘from’ address for any email that’s unexpected or out of the ordinary in even the smallest way. If you are unsure it is genuine, ring the person, even if the email says not to, which of course it’s likely to. Never reply by email until proven genuine.

Advice for clergy

We are also advising clergy to inform their church officers, PCC members and people on parish mailing lists, that “I will never ask you by email or text to spend your own money for the church.”

Steve King, the Diocese of Exeter’s IT Consultant, says “This guidance is just skimming the surface of this one particular breed of email scam. Please bear in mind that there are thousands of different scams out there, and the scammers are always thinking of new ways to deceive, or to bypass any mitigations in place to block scams.

“You have to assume that all emails are scams, unless you can prove that they are genuine. As Christians, we are typically trusting people, which is why I think I see more of this type of scam related to the Church than in other organisations, although everyone gets them to a certain extent.

“No shame in being deceived”

“If you have replied to one of these emails, please do not be embarrassed, you aren’t the first. The most important thing in that case is to stop any further engagement, and speak to someone as soon as possible.”

This is echoed by the Devon and Cornwall police website which says “Don’t be embarrassed about reporting a scam. Because the scammers are cunning and clever there’s no shame in being deceived. By reporting it, you’ll make it more difficult for them to deceive others.”

You can find more advice about avoiding personal fraud on the Devon and Cornwall Police website

 

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