On Wednesday, dozens of people, including many parishioners from Trinity Lutheran Church, received an email that appeared to be from Trinity Pastor Dan Heuer with a subject line that read “Urgent.”
“Good Morning!” the email read. “How are you? I need a favor.”
But the cheery request didn’t come from Heuer.
The pastor’s email had been hacked, and those who received the email were actually the targets of an apparent scam seeking money.
Heuer said that he and the church received contact from as many as 50 individuals on his contacts list who called or texted to see if the email was legitimate.
Those who responded to the initial email from Heuer’s account were met with a request for money in the form of iTunes gift cards. In one email obtained by the Tribune, the scammer, posing as Heuer, tells the respondent that he needs to get an iTunes gift card for his niece’s birthday, but could not make it to the store because of a recent foot surgery. The scammer then asks the respondent to go to a store and purchase an iTunes gift card for him, promising to reimburse their expense.
Heuer had not received any recent foot surgery, he said.
“People that know me here knew that that wasn’t the case, so that was another red flag,” he said. “But, for those who hadn’t seen me for a while, they were thinking well maybe this is the case.”
The initial email asking for a favor was sent under Heuer’s actual email address. But those who answered received responses from a different, slightly altered email address, which was another red flag.
It’s unclear if anybody followed through with the scammer’s requests or lost any money — Heuer had not heard from anyone who had.
Heuer said that he received a notification from Yahoo warning him that his account had been compromised. He responded to ensure that the situation was remedied, but by that time, “the damage had been done.”
“I wish that [the hackers] would put as much effort into doing good things as opposed to scamming,” he said.
Heuer said that he now has control of his email account again, but warned residents to be wary about emails that seem suspicious. He suggested noting the word choice, whether the request seemed odd, and any changes in the email address in subsequent replies. He also suggested that people change their email passwords frequently to avoid being hacked.
“It’s certainly something just to be very careful about and wary about,” he said. “Note the from and reply to [email addresses], that it’s going back to the same person or the same place you think it’s from.”
Lieutenant Ed Watts with the Fremont Police Department said that scammers often request things like gift cards or wire transfers when trying to acquire money.
“That actually is probably the biggest indicator that I would tell people that it’s a scam, is if it involves any kind of a wire transfer, or like a gift card where they’re supposed to call somebody with the number of the gift card,” Watts said. “Because once they do that, or they do a wire transfer, and that money comes out of your account, you can’t get it back, the banks can’t get it back, we can’t get it back.”
He added that this incident seemed somewhat unique from the usual scams that the department hears about. Most scams reported in the Fremont area occur over the phone, where a caller requests the transfer of funds.
Other types of scams, typically conducted over the phone, involve requesting money for phony debts or fake penalties for missed jury duty or non-existent traffic tickets. In these cases, the scammer may try to intimidate the potential victim, telling them that they could face consequences like prison time if they don’t pay.
In another recently reported scam, potential victims were falsely told that they’ve won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes, and simply needed to wire over a fee in order to receive their prize.
Watts added that, whenever an email seems questionable, it’s always best to call the sender to confirm its authenticity.