Speakers beware: Scammers are using a church event as the basis for stealing your money2013-04-16
As a speaker, I process a lot of speaking invitations, so I was intrigued when I received one from a UK-based church that was hosting an event and wanted me to speak. Other organizations have brought me to international locations, so I responded to this one with questions. Bishop Allan Willson (who signed the email) responded with complete answers. I also asked a UK-based colleague to look into the church. He let me know it appeared to be a legitimate institution.
I got fairly far down the road with the engagement. Bishop Willson handed me off to Edward Smith, who identified himself as president of the event organizing committee. Again, everything was very personal and detailed. I even started some research on Smith’s note that I’d need to have a work permit. This nugget was near the end of Smith’s email. “If you do not have the permit please let us know so we can make arrangements for the documents to be processed quickly as the event is at hand,” the email said. “But if you do have the work permit just scan and send to us.”
I’ve been to England a few times and never needed a work permit, so I decided to do a quick search. What I found, among other things, was a post by social media speaker Patrick Schwerdtfeger headlined UK Work Permit Church Scam for Speakers. Schwerdtfeger got farther down the road than I did. He sent more than $1,000 via Western Union to cover the permit.
It’s important to note that Schwerdtfeger’s invitation came from different names and a different church. He even received a second invitation from yet another church even after he exposed the initial scam.
There were warning signs I should have caught. All the emails I received came from Gmail and Hotmail addresses, though by itself that’s not so unusual. I get a lot of legitimate business email from Gmail accounts. The invitation noted that, despite the fact that the event was scheduled for the end of May, the event site was still forthcoming. And had I thought to search for Bishop Allan Willson, I would have found no such person existed.
I replied to the last of the emails I had recieved from Smith with a link to Schwerdfteger’s post. “This sounds a lot like you,” I wrote. I never heard back.
The basic concept of this scam isn’t far off a lot of email scams: Send us money in exchange for a promise of something worth even more. This one is particularly insidious, though, in a number of ways. Getting something from a bishop and a church tends to put you off guard. They knew I was a speaker and what topics I address, so I was targeted personally, not randomly as most similar email scams do. The engagement—particularly with “Smith”—was quite professional.
I never would have sent the “church” a nickel. I have experience with last-minute visas and work permits and the like and use an expiditing service based in Washington, D.C., for such things. But the scam is clever enough that I don’t want to see other speakers exploited. If you’re part of a speaker community, please spread the word so nobody falls prey to these vermin.