Rabbis in Metro Detroit have reported that congregants informed them of receiving “spoofed” emails — messages that appear to be from the rabbis but in fact contain scams.

The Torah doesn’t mention digital security, but local rabbis have been targeted by recent internet scams all the same.

The recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents — both online as well as actual attacks on Jewish people and institutions — has put our community on high alert. So, it was not surprising that alarms have been going off in response to a spate of email spoofing that has affected rabbis across the country, including here in Metro Detroit although there has been no indication the scam was intended as an anti-Semitic act.

Rabbis at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park and Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield have reported that congregants informed them of receiving “spoofed” emails — messages that appear to be from the rabbis but in fact contain scams.

The email scam does not involve any digital hacking of the accounts of Jewish clergy; however, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit have called it concerning in emailed statements.

The first rabbis affected by this email scam began reporting it a couple of months ago in social media groups and on their Facebook accounts. Several rabbis and congregations have chosen to inform their membership through Constant Contact email messages about the scam to allay their fears that any email accounts or membership databases had been hacked.

The scammers, pretending to be a rabbi, ask congregants to purchase gift cards, supposedly for charity. The scammers have created patterns of fake email addresses using Gmail, the free Google service, in the format of [rabbi’s name].[synagogue name]@gmail.com. The scammers then appear to track down members of that rabbi’s congregation, find their email addresses on the web and send out the requests.

Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm was the first to alert his congregation via Constant Contact that a fake email account had been set up in his name. He wrote, “Some people within our congregation received an email from an address similar to mine (but not my email address) and purportedly from me. In fact, however, I did not send that email.  The email was sent from a person attempting to scam people out of their money… This is a scam and I did not (and would not) make a request like this.”

“This great scam, that works precisely because congregants trust their clergy,” said Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s professional organization of rabbis. “It’s a faceless crime, but it still feels like a violation if someone can get your information and attempt to do harm.”

If an email recipient responds, the scammers typically follow up by asking the congregant or synagogue staffer to buy gift cards to online retailers like Amazon and Google Play and send them the cards’ numbers and PIN codes.

It is not clear who the perpetrators of the scam are or whether the scams are part of a coordinated effort.

The Secure Community Network (SCN), a national homeland security initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, sent out an email to congregations around the country stating that these recent incidents “demonstrate a continued interest by cybercriminals to target Jewish institutions, organizations and interests with cyberattacks.

“Leadership and security personnel are encouraged to review and update cybersecurity policies and procedures on a regular basis in order to identify potential vulnerabilities and train staff in recognizing potential harmful emails, links, and sites,” the email continued. “The SCN has been in touch with relevant partners and will continue to monitor events and provide updates, as necessary.”

Rabbi Jason Miller is a local educator and entrepreneur. He is the president of Access Technology in West Bloomfield.

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