Pastor Michael Hargraves signs his emails with “May God Richly Bless You.”
He’s recently been preaching about sermons about Christian growth and thankfulness for his small congregation at Buffalo United Methodist Church, located on Pine Street in Buffalo, the Dallas County seat.
But along with messages of faith, Hargraves has another message for the public: His church is notlinked to phone messages from scammers that have been circulating lately.
Hargraves and church staff have been dealing with reports of scammers using the church’s phone number to contact community members, he told the News-Leader in recent days.
How does the phone scam work?
The scam uses the church’s local phone number to prompt unsuspecting potential victims to answer a call or listen to voicemails, said Stephanie Garland with the Springfield Better Business Bureau office. Phone users see the church’s phone number come up on their device’s caller ID, rather than a strange out-of-state number or a toll-free line.
But the church isn’t making the call. Instead, fraudsters tell those who pick up the phone that there’s an “arrest warrant” with their name on it. The scammers assert that by paying a fine, they can make the purported legal trouble go away.
“What they’ll usually do is make it look like a local number and then people will give their information, and credit card information or whatever, to pay their fine and stuff, and then it’s done,” Hargraves said.
Since scammers began appropriating the church’s phone number, Hargraves said he and a church administrative assistant have fielded several calls from upset community members around southwest Missouri.
Hargraves said, “I think we did a call back and told them, ‘this is the church’s number; we didn’t call you.’ And I think somebody else called that day while we were in here, and got upset and everything… somebody apparently is giving our number out.”
How do legitimate arrest warrants work?
To be clear, phone messages of this type aren’t the way arrest warrants are handled by legitimate law enforcement.
Jasmine Bailey, Springfield police spokesperson, noted that an arrest warrant is a signed document indicating a judge’s order to arrest someone or search a specific property.
“The only way a warrant can be handled is in person,” Bailey wrote in an email to the News-Leader late last week. “You can’t arrest someone or search a property via phone. You cannot pay a fine over the phone to get rid of a warrant – and official entities will not request such an action. The only correspondence, other than being taken to court, that someone might receive in reference to a warrant would be a notification via letter or phone from the court that the warrant has been issued, but not a request for money.”
Hargraves reported the issue to local law enforcement, which referred him to the Missouri Attorney General’s office for consumer protection. That office maintains a toll-free line for taking consumer complaints: 800-392-8222. The public may also make complaints to the Federal Trade Commission at reportfraud.ftc.gov or by calling the Better Business Bureau or using its website, bbb.org.
“Scammers have set an ultimate low right here,” said Garland, with the Springfield BBB. “A lot of these people in a small community, they’re going to go ahead and think that it’s their church calling.”
Garland added, “The warrant arrest scam has been around for a long time, but what’s really new about this is using the church’s phone number. This is a thing that’s been going on for some time in terms of people pretending to be with the government, people using technology to pretend that it’s your own phone number calling you. And they’ll also say that it’s AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile etc. that’s calling you and you’ve got to pay your bill.”
Garland noted that BBB issued a consumer protection tip sheet on these types of “phishing” scams earlier this year.
“What’s happening now, there’s no way it’s legitimate,” Garland said. “It’s a total scam.”
These types of scams can also use email as the medium of communication, rather than phone calls. In 2019, BBB reported on two incidents of email scams that were collectively worth more than $9 million in consumer losses. Many of the defendants in those two cases were foreign nationals.
Back in Buffalo, so far as Pastor Hargraves knows, none of the members of his congregation were victimized by any alleged scammers or lost any money. He also said he hasn’t heard of any other churches in the Buffalo area that were victimized.