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Email scam fooled a Shaker Heights resident with a PhD, could it fool you?

Shaker Heights woman fooled by clever email scam that used her pastor as bait
Posted at 6:40 AM, Oct 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-03 18:07:04-04

CLEVELAND — Crooks are targeting people who go to church in our area and they're making off with a lot of cash. It’s a sophisticated scam that caught a local woman off guard and could catch you if you're not careful.

"I know it could happen to anybody if it happened to me,” said Mary Giffin, 71, from Shaker Heights. She has a PhD and is pretty sharp, but she was a bit off her game in early June recovering from the flu and a bad fall. "I was, in retrospect, in a pretty vulnerable state when I got an email from the pastor,” said Giffin.

Some scammers posed as her pastor. They asked her to buy gift cards for a charity. She trusted the emails, purchased the cards at her grocery store, and then lost hundreds of dollars.

"My heart dropped,” said Giffin about the moment she found out it was all a scam.

It seems like Giffin’s story is similar to reports we've done in the past, right? But this one is different in the way it was carried out. It appears the crooks did a lot of homework before contacting the people at the church.

"When [my ‘pastor'] asked me for a favor in an email, and it came from her name, I didn't think anything of it,” said Giffin. They used the pastor's real name and created a Gmail account. The cards were for "some women going through cancer at the hospital" said the scammer in the email.

"She does the kind of ministry that the scammer described. She goes to hospitals,” explained Giffin.

They used the tone of a church leader.

"They knew the kind of voice that a pastor has. They used the kind of approach and the kind of vocabulary that a pastor uses,” Giffin told us.

And if you're looking for language barriers in the emails, think again.

"I've taught English all my life,” said Giffin. “I know what scam email looks like and I usually question things. I usually doubt and question," she added.

"Now the scammers are using professional writers or software to correct their grammar. So, it's not that easy to tell,” said Sue McConnell from the Better Business Bureau Serving Greater Cleveland. She told us it’s certainly not just churches. Business Email Compromise scams have raked in more than $3 billion since 2016, the BBB said. "The volume of losses was very stunning."

A recent BBB report showed this kind of fraud "has tripled over the last three years" and "in 2018, 80% of businesses received at least one of these emails."

"Report [these scams] because you could help somebody else not become victim of this fraud," encouraged McConnell.

That's why Giffin is stepping forward to warn you about the scam. And she has a message for the crooks: "Do you have any idea how you're messing up people's lives? Cut it out!"

Best advice: If you get an email from your boss, company, or church, call that person or organization and verify it. And never buy gift cards when asked to do so in an email or over the phone.

RELATED: How to keep from being scammed when selling online

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