Warning issued over scam artists posing as ministers

Warning issued over scam artists pretending to be clergy.Posing as ministers and using real church addresses, scam artists have targeted Pennsylvania consumers with travel scams, prompting state Attorney General Tom Corbett to warn businesses, churches and other groups to be on the lookout for the fake deals.

"Modern computer technology makes it quick and easy for thieves to generate Internet ads of e-mail messages seeking assistance in purchasing airline tickets and making other travel arrangements," Corbett said in a statement. "Individuals who respond to the bogus ads will typically be asked to wire-transfer money, or businesses may be sent counterfeit checks or fraudulent credit card information to complete the transactions."

Corbett said the thieves claim to be church officials or missionaries as a way of establishing trust and luring more to respond. Scam e-mails also often include tales of travel problems, other unexpected difficulties and urgent deadlines -- all to get victims to respond without verifying if the message is legitimate.
As an example, Corbett pointed to one case in Pennsylvania where the scammers copied the website address and contact information for a church in central Pennsylvania and then posed as a minister trying to buy airline tickets to Toronto, London, Nigeria, Qatar and elsewhere.

In another case, a bogus church official claimed to make travel arrangements for a group of missionaries who were visiting the United States. Church officials reported the possible scam to the police after being contacted by travel agencies in Virginia and Pennsylvania that tried to respond to the phony email.

If you see an Internet ad or get an e-mail offer that either looks too good to pass up or is asking for financial help, Corbett gave seven tips to be on the look out for:

  • Bad grammar and spelling, as well as implausible stories. People claiming to be a high-ranking official, traveling "business person" or missionary should be able to communicate clearly.
  • Messages that offer up a lot of personal information and include drawn-out stories about medical problems and family issues.
  • Anyone wanting to use an unsecured form of payment including a money transfer, certified check or cashier's check.
  • Offers to send you a larger payment than necessary then ask you return some of the money.
  • Requests of you to make an international payment or use a money order or wire transfer.
  • Generic or anonymous free email addresses like those from Yahoo, Hotmail and Google. Get a verifiable address, phone number and e-mail account. If someone is taking part in a legitimate transaction, they should be willing to disclose their contact information.
  • Don't respond to messages that you think are scams -- that will lead to more fake messages and spam sent to your e-mail account.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission said that legitimate businesses rarely can afford to give away products or services or substantially undercut their competition -- so if it looks too good it probably isn't a real deal. The agency also recommended to get all travel deals in writing and confirm each section of the itinerary before paying.

Whenever you're trying to buy something from a stranger, it's best to find out how to spot fake websites that could leave you scammed. It's fairly easy to learn how to spot a fraud.
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