Not too long ago, the "Grandmother Scam" was all the rage. Seniors would get an email or a telephone call, supposedly from a grandchild, stating that the grandchild was in jail in a foreign country on a trumped-up charge and needed a few thousand dollars to buy his or her freedom.
Old scams, of course, never die. They just change their skin slightly, and the latest version of this one involves the clergy. We had heard about this latest version but had not seen it in the wild until a few days ago when this popped up in the inbox, complete with a very explicit warning from Google:
"Those poor saps. Haven't they heard that everybody knows about this scam already?" I remarked to a co-worker.
But there's always someone who didn't get the word. Sure enough. Today we checked with the Msgr. Jim whose email had been hijacked and he reported ruefully that one of his parishoners had called him a few days ago, wanting to know if he had escaped from his Filipino captors.
The parishoner had fallen for the appeal and, wanting to help his favorite priest, had responded to the email and, assured by the scammer that it was for real, had wired several thousand dollars as instructed.
The money, of course, is gone and cannot be recovered.
Tip-offs to watch for
While the parishoner's generosity and willingness to help are commendable, there were several tip-offs that the email was perhaps not what it seemed:
- Most obviously, Msgr. Jim had not said in any of his recent homilies that he was preparing to fly halfway around the world. This is something most people would mention, at least in passing.
- A Roman Catholic priest is never far from a colleague. Msgr. Jim could have called or emailed the nearest RC church for help.
- Equally likely, Msgr. Jim could and probably would have called or emailed the office at his large East Coast parish for help.
- The email opens with a generic "Good morning" greeting. Normally, when asking someone for a loan, you'd address them by name.
- Most telling of all, the email came from an AOL.com address but hit the return button and the return address is at Hotmail.com. Does Msgr. Jim have nearly identical email addresses at different carriers? Not likely.
- And finally, for anyone using Gmail, the big red warning is pretty conspicuous. Anyone who doesn't use Gmail probably should as it has the tightest security and best spam filters available in a free account.
Generosity and a willingness to help are admirable traits, but it's wise to be a little cautious. It was Ronald Reagan who frequently quoted the Russian proverb, "Trust but verify." Good advice for anyone in any sphere.