Email ‘phishing’ scam targets Bay Area rabbis and their congregants – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on January 31, 2020

A new wave of a popular email scam has hit the Bay Area, with scammers posing as local rabbis to extort gift cards from the unsuspecting. At least a eight local synagogues have been affected.

The scamstarts with an email sent from an address that looks very similar to a particular rabbis email address. The fake email is sent to some of the rabbis congregants, and it usually asks for a donation of online gift cards, a simple way for a con artist to grab a small bit of cash.

Somebody is impersonating the rabbi and preying on peoples sincerity and good faith, said Gordon Gladstone, executive director of San Franciscos Congregation Sherith Israel, one of the synagogues that was hit.

The same scam prompted the Federal Trade Commission to issue a warning in July 2019 to synagogues, mosques and churches. The recent wave seems to have started on the East Coast and made its way across the country. Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed by a gunman in 2018, was affected last week.

Among other Bay Area synagogues targeted were Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa; Congregation Shaar Zahav in San Francisco; Congregation Emeth in Morgan Hill; Congregation Beth Jacob in Oakland; Congregation Bnai Israel in Sacramento; and Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

I think that it happened last night, because I had a bunch of emails in my inbox this morning, Shaar Zahav Rabbi Mychel Copeland said today. Early this morning she sent a message to congregants from the synagogues main email address, warning them not to buy gift cards. She said many congregants had reached out to her.

People were worried, and they wanted to hear if I knew, she said.

Rabbi Chai Levy of Berkeleys Congregation Netivot Shalom had an incident last week when an email went out from an address similar to hers, asking for eBay gift cards for women hospitalized with cancer. She said the people who received it werent fooled, mostly because of the halting grammar and strange capitalization.

Hello How Are You?I Need An Assistance From You?Please Let Me Know If You Get This,Shalom,Rabbi Chai

An email reply to someone who responded to the first message read:

I just need to get eBay gift card today for some women going through cancer at the hospital but i cant do that right now because of my busy schedule. Can you get it from any store around you possibly now or online? And I will pay you back later in cash or check.

It just didnt look like it was written by me, Levy said.

Thats one of the main ways people can avoid being taken in by scams like this. If something seems off, stop and take a second look, Gladstone said.

Theres a lot coming at you, and its easy to get confused, he said. This is very much in the frame of social engineering, a term for scams that use natural human inclinations (like the desire to be generous or trusting) as a tool to manipulate.

Gladstone said the people who have received the emails are usually those whose email addresses are listed on the synagogue website in some capacity, such as committee work.

But Levy said emails were sent to congregants who werent listed, and even to nonmembers.

I cant figure out how the people doing the phishing or the computers doing the phishing were getting peoples email addresses, she said.

Rabbis and synagogue staff have been letting each other know through informal channels that the scam is active, and proactively alerting their congregants.

The FTC asks anyone who mistakenly paid a scammer with a gift card to report it to the card company as soon as possible, and at

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Email 'phishing' scam targets Bay Area rabbis and their congregants - The Jewish News of Northern California

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