A couple of weeks ago, I listed an expensive item for sale on Facebook Marketplace. Within minutes, someone named Anna messaged. What was my bottom-line price? Could she also pay $90 extra for me to ship the heavy item to her in “Tennessee Nashville”?
This was great. I could get the item sold today! We agreed on the price. She said she would immediately send the payment via Venmo. I sent her our Venmo account name and the last four phone-number digits, which Venmo requires to verify payments.
Soon, Anna messaged again to say she’d sent the payment. I told her I hadn’t received any notice.
“You should check your confirmation email inbox or junk folder.”
Lo and behold, there it was in the junk folder. The email from “The Team at Venmo” said Anna’s payment had been received, but that the money was stuck because I don’t have a “Business Account.” This violated Venmo’s rules, so my account would be suspended until I upgraded by clicking a link. I would also need to collect an additional $400 payment from Anna to be sure everything was working. Then I could just refund that amount to her immediately. The email was in small type, with a few typos and weirdly constructed sentences.
Let me pause here to mention that I did not just fall off the back of a turnip truck. I know how to spot scams. I know the kinds of information never to give a stranger, not to click links or respond to suspicious texts … all of that. Yet even as my inner alarm bells rang, I continued to correspond with Anna. I feared maybe both of us had been scammed, and I felt responsible. Her hard-earned money was stuck in banking limbo. I told her the “Team Venmo” email looked suspicious and that I wanted to make this right.
Anna messaged back. Did I get things figured out? Did her payment go through?
Then, a moment of clarity. I Googled “Venmo scam business account.” Bingo. There was the whole scenario, almost line-for-line. The person I had sought to protect was, in fact, the scammer. I messaged “Anna” that we were done. Then I changed a couple of passwords, just to be safe. I reported the scam to the Federal Trade Commission, and that was that. I hope.
Snakes and doves
When you hear about friends or relatives who have been scammed, it’s easy to think, “How dumb would someone have to be to fall for that?”
Turns out, not so dumb at all. These scams prey on conscientious, compassionate, trusting people. Many Christians fit that description. Pair that with the lure of selling an expensive item quickly, and I was a better-than-average target. (Friends have since told me never to respond to offers in the first few minutes after listing an expensive item on Facebook Marketplace—they’re almost always phony.)
So my heart ran way ahead of my brain that day. Much as I’d like to believe I could never be scammed, none of us are bullet-proof. Otherwise-smart people get taken all the time by phone and online liars … by desperate-looking people at busy intersections, panhandling for heroin money … by charismatic con men seeking power … by fear peddlers on TV and social media. The common denominator is, people make dishonest livings and even build dishonest empires by leveraging others’ fears, misguided compassion or just plain naivete.
Jesus told his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We’re good at the “doves” part. But I hate snakes, and I also want to believe the best about people. I don’t like starting from a protective position of distrust.
The not-so-astounding conclusion here is that Jesus was right, then and now. If we as his followers are to lovingly engage our sin-scarred culture without being consumed by it, we need both traits. In an emerging post-truth era of deepfakes, disinformation and profit above ethics, let’s use our brains to think critically as we use our hearts to love well.
My item’s still for sale on Facebook. No takers yet. But no one taken, either. I’ll call that a win.
MORE: Going on an international mission trip? Know someone who is? You should be aware of a scam called virtual kidnapping. This article explains it and offers advice to protect yourself and your loved ones.