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Email Scammers Target St. Louis Area Posing As YMCA, BBB, Church Leaders

Real estate agent Shawn Uhe speaks during a press conference at the Better Business Bureau in St. Louis about being a target of business email fraud. 9/26/19
Andrea Smith | St. Louis Public Radio

Internet security officials in St. Louis and around the country report a growing number of email scams that stole more than a billion dollars from businesses and individuals in 2018.

A Better Business Bureau report released Thursday says the amount of money email scammers stole tripled between 2016 and 2018. 

People in the St. Louis area recently have been the targets of scammers posing as religious leaders, the YMCA and the Better Business Bureau, said Steve Baker, an investigator for the bureau.

“Education is really important. Everybody is at risk,” Baker said. 

Scam emails often involve a request for money or information that’s paired with a name familiar to the victim, such as a colleague, business or family member. Baker said he encourages people to make a call or meet in person before ever transferring money. 

“We do know this is happening with some frequency in the St. Louis area, Baker said. "People need to be careful.” 

Scammers typically target people responsible for handling payments within a business, government or nonprofit organization, but individuals can fall victim, too. 

Real estate agent Shawn Uhe — who works in the St. Louis and Edwardsville areas — said she got caught up in this type of scheme last summer when a scammer used her name to target a client.

Her buyer received an email requesting a wire transfer for money owed on a house just before their closing date, Uhe said. Subsequent emails included the exact price of the house, Uhe’s email signature and an attached document featuring the title company’s letterhead. 

Instead of wiring the money, the buyer decided to wait to talk to and pay Uhe in person a day or two later. 

“When my buyer explained the emails, I was shaking,” Uhe said. “The ‘what ifs’ were just, like, spinning in my head. You know, what would’ve happened to my seller? What would’ve happened to my buyer?”

To Uhe’s relief, the buyer didn’t lose any money. Uhe said she takes a more proactive approach now and warns clients that they should call her about any wire transfer requests.

The Better Business Bureau encourages people to protect themselves from scams by setting up multi-factor authentication logins for email accounts and for businesses to provide employees with internet security training. Organizations targeted by email scammers can report incidents or attempted incidents to the FBI, which might be able to recover lost money.

Follow Andrea on Twitter:@andr3afaith

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Andrea Smith is the St. Louis Public Radio Fall intern. She is an Arkansas native and a graduate from the University of Arkansas with a major in journalism and a minor in Spanish.