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Morrisey: Beware of faith-based scams

CHARLESTON — The state attorney general is warning residents not to fall prey to faith-based scams.

Law enforcement officials call them affinity frauds, scams that target victims linked by a common bond, often religion. Experts say affinity fraud losses run into billions of dollars each year.

“We want people to donate to their local church or favorite charity but to do so wisely,” Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said. “Consumers need to ensure they are dealing with the correct entity and not someone who is merely posing as that entity.”

Scammers have hacked a minister’s or faith-based charity’s online account, then emailed consumers in those entities’ databases saying they desperately need money or must talk about a personal matter.

“Scammers may claim the pastor is stuck overseas and needs gift cards sent to get home, or they could solicit funds for a project,” a press release from Morrisey’s office states. “The emails might even say where to buy gift cards in the area, adding a local touch that makes the note seem more authentic. They may also reference information about the congregation found on the church’s website.”

Officials say the emails appear to come from the minister or charity. “Only careful inspection reveals the communications are fake,” the release states. “For instance, instead of a church’s .com account, the address might be .net.

“In one instance, a parishioner nearly sent $400 in gift cards to someone they thought was their pastor. In another, congregants contributed to a building fund for a project that never existed.”

COVID-19 and related church shutdowns, however, have forced congregations to get creative in order to keep up with expenses, providing greater opportunities for scammers to take advantage of good-hearted parishioners.

“People want to trust,” Jenice Malecki, a New York securities lawyer specializing in affinity fraud cases, said in an interview with CNBC’s “American Greed.” “Especially in affinity situations, where people feel more comfortable for one reason or another, be it a church or an ethnic community, they tend to not look as hard as they should at what’s in front of them.”

Morrisey said consumers should beware of emails from a minister saying they need money wired to an account or gift cards sent to them. They should also be leery of egregious spelling errors or unusual use of common words.

Citizens “should be especially cautious when clicking on links in emails since those could lead to one’s computer or other device being hacked or the possibility of downloading malware or ransomware,” the release states.

“If in doubt, parishioners should call the pastor or church office. Houses of worship and charities should consider purchasing domain names that are similar to theirs, for instance buying the .com address if they are .org or .net. They should also avoid using the same password for everyone in the organization.”

Anyone who believes they have been the victim of a faith-based scam should contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-368-8808 or visit the office online at www.wvago.gov.

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