Kit Clark didn’t hesitate when she received a text message in mid-December asking her to help out with her church’s Christmas gift-card collection for women in a local cancer ward.
The 76-year-old Rodgers Forge woman made several trips to the Giant supermarket, bought $800 in eBay gift cards, and texted back the codes to redeem them, just like her pastor, the Rev. Tom Harris, had asked.
Only he hadn’t asked. There was no gift-card collection.
After Clark, a longtime member of Govans Presbyterian Church, brought the receipts to the church to be reimbursed, she and church officials realized someone had preyed on her generosity — the latest iteration of a long-running, widespread scam in which fraudsters pose as friends, family, clergy and others to trick people into wiring money, buying gift cards and sharing personal information.
“When there’s a need, you want to help. ... If it had been somebody else, I would have questioned it,” Clark said. “But my minister saying he was in a meeting, and could I do this? I never questioned it. I thought, ‘that’s sort of odd.’ But, really, right at Christmastime, the ministers have so much on their plate. I didn’t question it.”
Baltimore County police are investigating the incident, and are warning others to be on the lookout for similar schemes, police spokesman Cpl. Shawn Vinson said. If they’re worried, people can always contact a police precinct or call 911, he said.
It’s unclear how the scammer got Clark’s cellphone number, but the internet provides many ways to gather people’s personal information without their knowledge, Vinson said.
“You can find out a lot of personal information about people just by going online," he said. “If somebody pretends that they know you, you can always give them a call directly. At least you can verify the identity of the person that you’re talking to.”
The real Govans Presbyterian pastor called the scam “awful.”
“Somehow they’re getting the pastor’s name and the members of that pastor’s church," Harris said. “It was a terrible thing for somebody to do."
When he posted a warning about it on his Facebook page, he said, three or four pastors in the area and others across the country responded that their names also had been used by fraudsters in similar attempts to grift their congregants.
It’s happened a handful of times — usually via email — in the past six months alone at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore in Mount Vernon, said the Rev. David Carl Olson, the church’s pastor. An affiliate minister got swindled out of $200 by one scammer posing as Olson when the reverend was out of town for a Unitarian General Assembly meeting in June, he said.
Each time Olson hears about a new one, he posts a warning on his or the church’s Facebook page, reminding members to always contact him directly if they ever get an email asking for money. Pastors from Connecticut, Missouri and Ohio have responded with their own stories, he said.
“I have no idea who’s running these scams," he said. “But, man, when I posted about it, I got messages from all over the country of people saying, ‘that happened to our church, too.’”
The Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office often issues warnings to the public about fraud schemes.
“We have seen these many times before,” said Raquel Coombs, the attorney general’s spokeswoman. “But most of the time, the victim has already been scammed and there’s very little chance of catching the perpetrator. Generally, if anyone asks you to purchase gift cards, money orders, etc., you should always lean toward it being a scam.”
Clark is kicking herself for falling for the hoax “hook, line and sinker.”
But she said she wants to get the word out, in case it saves someone else from being tricked.
“I don’t think we’re going to get our money back,” Clark said. “But I do hope it keeps some other people who may be vulnerable from falling into the same trap.”