On Saturday, Jeff Schinstock got an email.
Schinstock, the director of youth and young adult ministry in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, gets a lot of emails. But this one stood out.
The email claimed to come from the pastor of a nearby parish. But Jeff suspected otherwise. He didn’t recognize the email address. Something about the language and punctuation seemed off. And Jeff noticed the email didn’t mention any names or places — it was totally generic.
Plus, the email was asking Jeff to do some unspecified favor for the priest—If it was something important, Jeff wondered why the priest wouldn’t just call him.
The email was a phishing scam.
Phishing scams are attempts to impersonate another person by email or text message in order to gain passwords, bank information, or to convince the target to purchase gift cards and supply the scammer with the information that can be used to make purchases with those cards.
In 2019 the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning about a newly popular phishing scam: con artists posing as parish pastors had begun emailing or texting parishioners, asking them to buy Apple, Google Play, Walmart, or other gift cards, and then send a photo of the gift card number and PIN to an email address.
Since 2019, the scam has become more common, and dioceses and parishes across the country have warned people to be careful, noting that pastors will never ask for gift cards or similar favors by email.
Jeff wasn’t sure how the scammer got his information: Phishers sometimes comb parish websites and bulletins for email addresses or phone numbers they can try to con. Jeff figured that his email address had been in bulletins lately and a scammer had found it there.
Experts advise anyone who receives a phishing scam email to report it to law enforcement, and not to reply. It is especially important never to click links in a phishing email, which can be manipulated to gain entry to a person’s computer.
But Jeff decided to play along with the scammer, just to see what might happen. And he invited The Pillar to hang out and observe while he replied. Here’s what went down:
This is the first email Jeff got from the scammer:
Here’s Jeff’s response:
The scammer didn’t like that Jeff offered to meet with him. That got his request off track. So he made an excuse, and then laid out for Jeff the favor: He needed Jeff to buy some gift cards for the parish. The scammer emphasized to Jeff that everything should be confidential, and that he would pay Jeff back:
Jeff offered again to meet with the scammer, and even offered to give him some gift cards:
The scammer tried to get Jeff back to the plan — email those gift cards:
Jeff decided to throw the scammer a curveball. So he went back and forth with the scammer about a plan to drop off the cards. He even told the scammer he’d left him a Christmas gift:
The scammer asked Jeff to go back to the rectory, get the gift cards, and send him those pin numbers:
By this point, the scammer was getting pretty impatient:
Jeff had another curveball, telling the scammer the rectory was locked. And, just to see what might happen, he told the scammer he had a parish credit card.
To no one’s real surprise, the scammer “authorized” Jeff to use the parish credit card to buy some more gift cards:
There was some more back and forth.
After that exchange, Jeff sent one more message to the scammer:
Jeff didn’t hear back from the scammer after that. To see his final message to the scammer, check out Mark 1:15.
To report an incident of email phishing, click here.