Community Issues

Latest Scam Targets Catholics With Text Messages

Scammers claim to be a priest, preying on the vulnerability of the faithful

It's happening all over the country.

  • In LaPort City Iowa , someone pretending to be a "Father Hutchinson" from the "Sacred Heart Catholic Church" texts people asking for donations for a friend who has cancer.
  • In Omaha , parishioners in at least four different Catholic churches get text messages from "priests" asking for gift cards for a "friend in the hospital."
  • In Scranton, PA the Diocese discovers a text scam when their own employees get messages on their phones from someone claiming to be a priest in the Diocese, asking for gift cards.
  • In Butte, Montana and Miami, Florida scammers get even more gutsy, using the names of real local priests to try and get iTunes gift card pin numbers to help "cancer patients."
"I was honestly convinced it was him, it sounded like the way he would speak." Hattie Thatcher, targeted by priest scam

None of these was legitimate, although at the time, they sounded pretty real to the would-be victims. These church-based scams have been going on for about a year all across the country, but seem to have ramped up lately.

They have similarities. In most cases, the rip-off artists are using text messaging to target potential victims. They claim to be a Catholic priest, sometimes using the actual names of priests or churches in the area. They have a concocted story about a parishioner in the hospital or someone with cancer who needs help immediately. The scammer says they don't have time to meet in person or talk on the phone, then asks the victim to buy gift cards and text them the numbers.

In some cases, scammers use the names of real priests and churches.

Lori Frederick of Omaha was a target. She told KETV-TV she received a text from an unknown number from someone claiming to be a priest with a name that was familiar to her. "So, I obviously thought of my priest at St. Patrick's," Frederick said. "'Can you go get me a $500 Google Play gift card for my friend that's in the hospital and I'll pay you back?'" Frederick said the text read.

She called her church and found out it was a scam. "That first instinct is obviously to help, but then you -- almost anything now, you have to trust, but verify," Frederick said.

Experts say these scammers take advantage of people's trust in their priests.

In Havertown, outside of Philadelphia, the warnings came too late. A parishioner who was e-mailed by a "priest" gave the scammer more than $2000 before calling his church and discovering that the e-mails were not from the "real" Father Kevin Gallagher.

"It's very frightening, and even sickening, that someone would use the personality of a priest to go after the innocence of other people for money," Gallagher told WPVI-TV .

Investigators say any time someone you don't know asks you to buy gift cards and give them the numbers, it's a scam. If you suspect you might be the target of scammers, call the police right away.

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