By Patrick Scriven
When it comes to churches and other non-profits, fraudsters are most eager to take advantage of the benevolence and trusting nature of those involved. This is even truer during the holiday season where your generosity is perceived as a weakness by these people.
The following post is an update of one we’ve shared a number of times now. To summarize, be very skeptical of any giving requests you receive online through email or social media. While the request may look like it is coming from an official source, it may not be real, as it may be the result of a hacked or spoofed account.
How the Greater Northwest Area and its conferences communicate
The Greater Northwest Area, and the conferences therein, utilize many means of technology to communicate with those in our area. However, it is often through these same channels that criminals attempt identity theft, phishing, and other scams. It is important to stay alert when opening emails, clicking links and accepting follow/friend requests on social media.
Lifewire details the various forms of email spoofing that make it look as if a request is coming from a trusted source. A helpful article from Wired provides guidelines for opening emails, even if it seems to be from someone you recognize. Brazos Wellness created a list of common phishing scams in this article.
While many email/social media scams are easy enough to spot, fraudsters who take a little extra time to try to understand the relationships present in an organization like the church can find vulnerabilities. Because of this, we are offering some helpful tips for recognizing official communications from the Greater Northwest Area and the annual conferences therein:
- Official conference emails will come from email addresses ending with the following domains: @greaternw.org, @pnwumc.org, or @umoi.org. If you receive an email that seems odd, email communications@ your respective conference immediately. Alaska is an exception to the aforementioned; they use firstname.lastname@example.org for Alaska Conference communications. As noted in the Lifehacker article linked above, advanced email spoofing can be hard to notice so be skeptical of unusual requests even if they come from these domains.
- Do not respond to or click on links from suspicious email addresses. The conference will only ask for personal information through official channels, such as event registrations and surveys. If you receive an email asking for a phone number/email address, make sure it is from one of the conference email addresses, and if you are unsure, email communications@your respective conference.
- Our official social media channels are listed below. If you get a request or message from any other entity than those listed, it is not from the area or your conference. Please email communications@ your respective conference with any fraud social media page requests.
- Bishop Elaine Stanovsky does have a personal email address she uses for correspondence that does not end with any of the aforementioned domains. The Bishop will not email you from this account, or any other, with personal appeals for gift cards or other requests like the one described in this article from the Better Business Bureau. And if our good bishop is stranded in a foreign country, be assured that she will not email to ask you for urgent assistance. The same advice is true for other conference leaders as well.
Your best defense against fraudulent email is a healthy amount of skepticism. Please avail yourself of the information above and give yourself permission to be less trusting in this one area of your life.
Fraudsters target local churches too
For those serving in local churches, please also consider how you can inform and protect your members from similar issues on a local level. Sharing contact information is part of being in relationship as a church, but sensitivity should be used to share only what is needed, and avoid publicly posting prayer requests, directories, or lists that can tempt spammers.
Developing reliable patterns of communicating with your community can help to minimize the possible risks of fraudulent behavior visiting you this holiday season.
It’s worth mentioning on Sunday morning, at least occasionally, how you solicit for special needs, and most importantly, how you don’t. For example, some churches do collect certain types of gift cards (examples: gas cards) so the church office can have them on hand for individuals in need. If this is the case, it is worth saying that you would never ask people for this type of giving in a personal email request.
Online fraud is a frustrating and disappointing part of life today. It is pervasive in part because of its success in capitalizing on good and generous people. Let’s do what we can to protect our flocks from this cyber-threat so that we can all enjoy this holiday season fully.
Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary educated layperson working professionally in the church. Scriven serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries.