British Columbia

Text scammers impersonating priests are targeting Catholics across Canada, church officials say

A slew of Catholic churches across Canada have confirmed their members are being targeted in a text-message phishing scam that asks parishioners to buy gift cards.

'It's come with a vengeance over the past 6 months,' says a Vancouver Island priest about phishing scam

The Holy Cross Catholic Parish in Victoria. Father William Hann says around 30 of his parishioners have contacted him about a scammer who is using his identity to extort money from them. (Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria)

Father William Hann says it starts with a text message.

"Can I talk to you? ... Someone needs help. I'm at the hospital and I need you to buy me five [iTunes] gift cards, scratch off the codes and send them to me," he said, reciting a phishing scam that has targeted many of his parishioners. 

Hann said around 30 people at the Holy Cross Catholic Parish in Victoria have contacted him about a scammer who has been impersonating him.

"It's come with a vengeance over the past six months," he said.

A slew of Catholic churches on Vancouver Island and across Canada have confirmed their members are being targeted in a similar scam.

Some people have been cheated out of thousands of dollars, leaving church communities deeply concerned and embarrassed.

Elderly especially vulnerable

Hann said elderly churchgoers are especially vulnerable to having their relationship with the church taken advantage of, as many of them aren't as aware of the dangers of digital scams. 

He said one parishioner was in a checkout line at London Drugs with a handful of gift cards before he phoned Hann to confirm the request.

Priests "would never ask people for help through text messages," said Hann.

Scammers will pose as the local priest and contact parishioners through emails and text messages to ask for hundreds of dollars worth of gift cards in an ongoing scam targeting churchgoers across Canada. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Cynthia Bouchard, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria, said she suspects scammers are targeting churches on the Island using contact information found on church websites or bulletin boards.

"We've advised our pastors and parishes to be aware that there are scams circulating," she said.

Reports from across Canada

Lorraine Turchansky, communications director for the Archdiocese of Edmonton, said since last summer nine parishes in the area have complained of being contacted via email by a scammer posing as their local priest, asking for iTunes gift cards.

In the past few months, the scam has "resurfaced" through text messages.

Turchansky said after one church member was cheated out of $300, the culprit asked for more money.

Neil McCarthy, from the Archdiocese of Toronto, said the scam has also "re-appeared in the past few weeks" there, often targeting parishioners who are in church leadership positions. 

"This is really the lowest of the low in terms of preying on the relationship that someone has with a priest," McCarthy said. 

At the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, Jeffrey Thomson said there have been seven reports in the past few months about similar scams, including ones from parishes in Campbell River and Richmond, in B.C., and from Manitoba and Newfoundland. 

He said scammers will often try to extort money through gift cards, rather than direct money transfers, because the purchase can't be traced as easily.

Thomson said police haven't requested to see any reports from the centre, so an investigation is unlikely at this point.

Cpl. Chris Manseau, from the B.C. RCMP, said while he hadn't heard of this particular trend, phishing scams are common. 

"This is their job. This is what they do for fun, and they wouldn't do it if it didn't work," Manseau said. 

Get verbal confirmation

Manseau said people should be aware that text messages and emails are often not legitimate ways for institutions to ask for money. 

Thomson said it's important for victims to get verbal confirmation from their church before sending any money. Parishes should also review their websites for contact information scammers could use, and consider whether it should be public. 

Hann said it's difficult for the church to stay available to parishioners without having contact information posted on its website, and he hopes the culprit will "get a life."

"People would do anything for a buck, it seems. And they prey on good people to do that," he said.

About the Author

Adam van der Zwan is a journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. You can send him a news tip at adam.van.der.zwan@cbc.ca.

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