Smishing. It sounds like a made-up word, and in a way, it is. But it’s also a scam that has been hitting local worshipers. You might ask how low can the scammers go. In this case, they’ve gone as low as impersonating priests, rabbis, pastors, and other faith leaders to try to defraud their congregations. We don’t know how much lower you can get than that.
What is Smishing?
Smishing is a portmanteau of SMS and phishing, themselves two relatively modern hybrid words. In short, scammers reach out to potential victims via text message. (SMS is one type of text message service). They claim that they need donations for some sort of worthy and often tear-jerking cause, and they need them fast. Of course, many people won’t fall for the lie, but reaching out to hundreds or even thousands of victims like that, looking for someone to “bite,” is called phishing. Although it existed via regular mail first, phishing is most common via email and is also done via robocalls. (Remember those Nigerian princes looking for someone to help them retrieve millions of dollars in gold?)
Phishing scams can occur over a variety of communication methods and come in many forms. But the gimmick we were alerted to recently is a pretty low mark even for a scammer. Scammers hack into faith leaders’ phone or social media accounts and impersonate them to send messages asking for urgent donations. In some cases, the scammers don’t even bother to hack into an account. They simply create a fake account, steal an image from a faith leaders’ real account, and then send messages to their contacts.
Although many worshipers are moved by the pleas of their priests, rabbis, and other worship leaders, there are some dead giveaways that things may not be on the up and up.
First, consider whether this form of contact is unusual for your faith leader. Has this person ever contacted you by text or social media before? Why might they be reaching out to you this way now? Is this the way they would ask for a donation?
If someone is reaching out to you via social media, check their account to see if it is spoofed. Has the account only recently become active? Do they have only a few friends? These are clues that this might not be a real account. If you think an account is fake, let the real person know. If they didn’t send the message, you can report the account as fake, and most social media sites will take it down.
That brings us to our final tip. Before giving anyone money, gift cards, or anything of value (including personal information) via text, call the person. Never give out money or information over text alone. A quick call to verify the information is often all it takes to uncover a smishing scam.
In addition to posing as faith leaders, many smishing scammers will pose as friends. Often, they create a lookalike account and contact all that person’s friends with an urgent request for help. One well-worn scam is to claim that the person whose account they are spoofing is traveling in a foreign country and has been robbed or lost everything. They need money wired to them immediately to get out of a sticky situation. If you get that kind of email, be suspicious. Ask to speak to the person on the phone. It’s not rude; it’s safe. Scammers may claim they don’t have access to a phone, but if you can’t speak to the person directly, chances are this is a scam. There is almost no real situation in which there is no possible way to reach a person via voice or video call.
Gift Cards and Wire Transfers
Scammers like money that they can get quickly and can’t be returned. This is why so many traditional scams ask for wire transfers and cashier’s checks. In some instances, they will ask for gift cards. That should be a massive red flag since almost no real person would ask you to transfer money by sending them a gift card.
Remember, if you think something doesn’t sound right, it’s never impolite to do a little due diligence. Even in an emergency, you should be able to reach someone by phone or another method other than the one from which you got the request. If you can’t corroborate the story, it’s a scam. Don’t go any further and alert the person being impersonated that this is going on. Often, they can reach out to others to ensure no one gets caught by this scheme, and social media and other accounts can be disabled or blocked.