Scammers posing as priests are targeting church members in Metro Detroit

Emails ask churchgoers to help fellow parishioners stricken with cancer

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CLINTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. – A new scam is creating concern in sanctuaries across Metro Detroit.

Police and church leaders are coming forward in the hopes that more people don't fall victim to the scam.

Volunteers with Local 4's Help Me Hank often hear about scams targeting people in Metro Detroit, and one recent scam is targeting church members, mainly seniors, making them believe the leader of the church is asking them to help sick families.

Michael Laruetti is a former police chief in Eastpointe and the current parish council chairperson at St. Paul of Tarsus in Clinton Township.

"I don't think that St. Paul is any different than any other church," Laruetti said. "As a matter of fact, I'm hearing that there are other churches that may have been targeted as well. I think it's important that we get the message out because the churches have a lot of senior citizens, and senior citizens are the prey for most scam artists."

The new scam starts with an email that appears to be from a priest asking for a favor. In later emails, the pitch is to help a fellow parishioner stricken with cancer. The recipient is asked to buy iTunes gift cards.

"Some people responded to the email and they said, 'Thank you,' or, 'God bless you,' or 'I need you to go do me a favor. I'm in a meeting. I need you to go get $200 in iTunes in $100 denominations of iTunes gift cards,'" Laruetti said.

The thieves aren't only targeting senior church members. After hacking into an email list, they doctored up an email to include a picture of the priest.

"When you get them, respond back to me and scratch the back of them off and get the code and take a picture of it and send me a picture of the code so I can send it to the family because I'm tied up and I can get you the money later," Laruetti said, telling what the scammers say.

Because he has a background in law enforcement, Laruetti said he knew immediately that the email was a scam. He engaged the scammers, working to get more information. Now, that information is in the hands of police, who are launching a full investigation into the incident.

Melanie Dequesnal, of the Better Business Bureau, has warned about the gift card scam before. She said the thieves stay one step ahead by using emotion and the identity of a trusted figure.

"Somebody is taking advantage of the value and trustworthiness of a pastor, which is insane and sad," Dequesnal said. "You're compounding it with somewhat of a Ponzi scheme using the pastor and the parishioners, but then you're also looking at the gift card scheme."

Experts said you shouldn't open an email from an address you don't recognize. If someone is contacting you asking for a gift card, it's likely a scam, and you should call police.

"The minute you open that first email, they realize that it's a live email," Dequesnal said. "Now they're going to go to the next email and bug you until you give them the money."

Several agencies are working to learn more about the scam and catch the people involved.

About the Authors:

Hank Winchester is Local 4's Consumer Investigative Reporter and the head of WDIV's "Help Me Hank" Consumer Unit. He works to solve consumer complaints, reveal important recalls and track down thieves who have ripped off metro Detroiters.

Derick is a Senior Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.