A new wave of a popular email scam has hit the Bay Area, with scammers posing as local rabbis to extort gift cards from the unsuspecting. At least eight local synagogues have been affected.
The scam starts with an email sent to congregants from an address that looks very similar to a particular rabbi’s. The body of the email usually asks for a donation of online gift cards, a simple way for a con artist to grab a small bit of cash.
“Somebody is impersonating the rabbi and preying on people’s sincerity and good faith,” said Gordon Gladstone, executive director of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel, one of the synagogues that was hit.
The same scam prompted the Federal Trade Commission to issue a warning in July 2019 to synagogues, mosques and churches. The recent wave seems to have started on the East Coast and made its way across the country. Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed by a gunman in 2018, was affected last week.
Among other Bay Area synagogues targeted were Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa; Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco; Congregation Emeth in Morgan Hill; Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland; Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento; and Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.
“I think that it happened last night, because I had a bunch of emails in my inbox this morning,” Sha’ar Zahav Rabbi Mychel Copeland said today. Early this morning she sent a message to congregants from the synagogue’s main email address, warning them not to buy gift cards. She said many congregants had reached out to her.
“People were worried, and they wanted to hear if I knew,” she said.
Rabbi Chai Levy of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom had an incident last week when an email went out from an address similar to hers, asking for eBay gift cards for women hospitalized with cancer. She said the people who received it weren’t fooled, mostly because of the halting grammar and strange capitalization.
“Hello How Are You?
I Need An Assistance From You?
Please Let Me Know If You Get This,
An email reply to someone who responded to the first message read:
“I just need to get eBay gift card today for some women going through cancer at the hospital but i cant do that right now because of my busy schedule. Can you get it from any store around you possibly now or online? And I will pay you back later in cash or check.”
“It just didn’t look like it was written by me,” Levy said.
That’s one of the main ways people can avoid being taken in by scams like this. If something seems off, stop and take a second look, Gladstone said.
“There’s a lot coming at you, and it’s easy to get confused,” he said. “This is very much in the frame of social engineering,” a term for scams that use natural human inclinations (like the desire to be generous or trusting) as a tool to manipulate.
Gladstone said the people who have received the emails are usually those whose email addresses are listed on the synagogue website in some capacity, such as committee work.
But Levy said emails were sent to congregants who weren’t listed, and even to nonmembers.
“I can’t figure out how the people doing the phishing — or the computers doing the phishing — were getting people’s email addresses,” she said.
Rabbis and synagogue staff have been letting each other know through informal channels that the scam is active, and proactively alerting their congregants.
The FTC asks anyone who mistakenly paid a scammer with a gift card to report it to the card company as soon as possible, and at ftc.gov/complaint.