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Rabbis are latest clergy targeted in email gift card scam

If you or your synagogue have been the target of this email scam and would like to share details of the incident, please contact Ari Feldman at [email protected].

A low-tech email scam targeting clergy has reached American rabbis, dozens of whom have taken to social media in recent days to alert their congregants and colleagues that would-be digital thieves are using their identities to request payments in the form of gift cards.

While the scam is not new, its perpetrators, whose identities remain unknown, appear to have moved over the last month to target synagogue congregants. The email senders suffer from the same grammar deficiencies as other scams, and tried to play to the religious affiliations of their new marks with subject lines and salutations such as “Shalom aleichem” and “Blessings.”

In some cases, the scammers asked for gift cards on behalf of other congregants, taking advantage of the importance of tzedakah — charity — in Jewish communities. The scams are particularly frustrating, rabbis say, since they aim to exploit the trusting relationships between clergy and congregants, and capitalize on the routine fundraising work for causes and synagogue events that rabbis and other Jewish leaders regularly engage in via email.

“It feels icky that there’s someone out there that has figured out this great scam, that works precisely because congregants trust their clergy,” said Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s organization of rabbis. Kamin said her identity was used in an email gift card scam, and estimated that she’s seen about a dozen posts from colleagues on social media reporting similar incidents.

“It’s a faceless crime, but it still feels like a violation if someone can get your information and attempt to do harm,” Kamin said.

Unlike other identity-theft scams, this version does not require a hacked email account. Instead, the scammers create a fake email address for a congregational rabbi and then send an emailed request for help, in some cases only to email addresses that are available on the synagogue’s website. The fake email address often takes the format of [rabbi’s name].[synagogue name], which mimicks how some rabbis do identify on the internet.

“I’m 95% sure that there was no hack done,” said Rabbi Marc Katz, of Temple Ner Tamid, a Reform congregation in Bloomfield, N.J., who sent an email to congregants several weekends ago warning them not to respond to solicitations from a fake email using his name “They knew that there were enough email addresses on our website, so they could get to people that way.”

If an email recipient responds, the scammers typically follow up by asking the congregant or synagogue staffer to buy gift cards to online retailers like Amazon and Google Play, and send them the cards’ numbers and PIN codes.

The scams have affected Jewish communities of various denominations across the country over the past month. In Tennessee, the Chattanooga Free Press reported last week that two local synagogues were targeted, and rabbis in Nevada, North Carolina and Maryland have also posted on social media about the scam.

It is not clear who the perpetrators of the scam are, or whether the scams are part of a coordinated effort. The Free Press reported that the Anti-Defamation League was investigating the scams; a representative for the ADL did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.

None of the rabbis interviewed reported any loss of money. But in some cases, including Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C., elderly congregants came close to complying with the request.

“As a faith community, we regularly help out individuals who are in need, and sometimes the calls to do so come from the clergy, and from our tradition, the very ethics with which our community has defined itself,” said Rabbi Asher Knight of Beth El.

The people who nearly lost money, he said, were the people who ”really live those ethics and values every day.”

This round of email scams targeting worshippers appears to have begun last summer. In July, a Federal Trade Commission blog post warned against the scam, noting that popular gift cards requested also included iTunes, the video game playing and discussion site Steam and the cash card service MoneyPak. The post noted that while most of the scams happen over email, there have also been instances of congregants getting texts and calls from their pastor, bishop or imam.

Because the scam has not yielded any reports of thefts so far, some rabbis are regarding it as relatively benign.

“It felt harmless, especially because I saw that it was happening to other people, so it didn’t feel like it was directed at me in particular,” said Rabbi Rachel Ain, who heard from a congregant about a suspicious email on Friday morning.

In many cases, these are not the first times these rabbis or synagogues have been targeted for internet scams, including phishing attacks. But the volume of the attacks in the space of a few weeks has surprised rabbis.

Rabbi Knight said that it is frustrating to have these kinds of attacks happen with faith in institutions in American life seems to be at a low.

“Unfortunately, this is part of the digital era we live in,” he said. “People are willing to prey on others goodwill and kindness and faith.”

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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