Learn how to protect yourself from imposter social media accounts that damage your credibility and hinder your growth

The email scams of the 1990s have a new face—online imposter accounts—but you can beat them. | by Kevin Long

Social media is a wonderful way to connect with family, friends, and your congregants. Ministries from local churches to worldwide ministries can, for free, spread God’s Word and their own content to tens of millions of people with a few thumb clicks on a smartphone. What a blessing…right?

As with many things, social media is both a blessing and a curse. The same tool ministries are using to spread the gospel is also being used by sinister elements who use that avenue—and its legitimate use and message—to steal from unsuspecting victims. When people see a social media account from a ministry or their church, most will assume it is legitimate. However, that is not always the case. Your church is an especially soft target for impostor accounts and scammers.

Impostor accounts have taken the place of the email scams of the 1990s. Remember the emails claiming you had won a prize or had some fortune bequeathed by royalty from somewhere if you would only send them your bank account number and some funds to “cover costs”? Or, the more convincing emails from what seemed to be from legit organizations seeking donations for a specific cause, whether it be to build a new church or help a family who is going on hard times or any number of things that might tug at your kindness enough to open your wallet? Scammers will always strike where they can be the most effective, which right now is on social media.

Typically, a fake account is set up and made to look like the official account, or close to it. It may claim to be a “private” account and will almost always use the profile photo of the ministry or person being impersonated. They will then use the fake account to send direct messages to tens of thousands of people who usually are legitimate followers of the real ministry or person. They don’t have to get too many people to fall for the scam in order to consider it a success and then move on to the next account.

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Sometimes these accounts will groom the person and engage in a long conversation with the victim. Others are more direct and seek a donation immediately. But it almost always involves an ask for money or for improper photos from the victim.

Many victims out of embarrassment do not want to admit they have been scammed out of money. Others don’t understand why the police or FBI won’t pursue the online scammers. Many people wonder why the social networks don’t do more to prevent impostor accounts. The problem is widespread. It goes well beyond the ministry, but churches are vulnerable because the scammers go where people have soft spots. Most people are generous with a ministry and will give what they have. The scammers see ministries and their followers as targets of opportunity.

Why is this a problem for your ministry? Here are three reasons:

1. It Creates Victims of People Who Trust You

Being scammed by an imposter creates victims of people who thought they were supporting you and your ministry. It damages yours and your ministry’s credibility, especially if you are not proactive in trying to prevent this from happening.

2. It Impacts Your Ability to Raise Funds

When a person is scammed, or hears about another who is scammed, this reduces trust in you and impacts your ability to raise money from followers. No matter how much you or your ministry try to disavow the scammers and fake accounts, they place a seed of doubt. People wonder whether or not they want to take the risk to be a part of your church or donate to your cause. This affects the financial bottom line, but more importantly, it impacts what outreach and projects you can do to spread the gospel. It impacts the number of meals you can provide to the needy, the number of programs you can support for your congregants and the community at large. It may impact a building fund or other large projects.

3. You Don’t Even Know It’s Happening

The third reason is that although it’s happening, most churches are unaware they have at least a few, if not more, imposter accounts.

Tackling this problem head-on is something every church large or small should do. It is not an easy task. Most of the networks rarely remove an account just because you report it directly from the profile. If you don’t have someone who spends hours a day searching your names on all the networks, the chances of finding all of them are very slim. And, if you are waiting for the fraud to get reported to you by someone who was approached, you have lost half the battle. The other half of the battle is lost when you can’t get the networks to take them down quickly, if at all. This leaves your congregation, your church, your ministry, and your followers exposed to the scammers.

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We recommend outsourcing the identification and mitigation of impostor social media. It’s relatively inexpensive to protect yourself. Think of it like insurance…you don’t always like paying for it, but you’re sure glad it’s there when a problem or disaster strikes. With a professional monthly service, your church’s return on investment is likely many times more than the cost of mitigating a disaster. Even better, it eliminates the problem before it becomes a drain on your time and a distraction to your mission.

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