Sunday, November 18, 2018
Public safety

A scam targets Catholics. Can you do a favor for a priest?

ST. PETERSBURG — Some Catholics in the Tampa Bay area have been hit by scammers sending requests, purportedly from their parish priests, for iTunes gift cards.

Father John Tapp of Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon alerted the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg after he learned that his staff had received such requests.

"We sent out an email to all of the pastors to be aware of this," said Teresa Peterson, spokeswoman for the diocese, which encompasses Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

"I have heard back that two other parishes in the diocese have had the same thing going on," Tapp said. "We have someone who monitors our website, our Facebook page. She noticed some activity. … What someone is doing is making up an email address with something that is approximate to my name and would go through a list of our ministers and contact them."

He said the emails contain fake requests from priests asking that iTunes gift cards be sent to another address so they may be given to someone in need.

"One of our ministers did buy a card and sent it off. I think it was for $200," Tapp said, adding that the man reported the incident to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency’s economic crimes unit is not aware of gift card scams targeting Catholic churches. He said, though, that gift cards are used in a variety of scams.

For instance, he said, a scammer might pretend to buy something online and send the seller a counterfeit check for more than an item costs. Then he’ll tell the seller he made a mistake, "just send me the rest in gift cards," Doll said.

That leaves the seller out of the item he’s selling and the money he paid for the gift cards, Doll said.

Tampa Police spokesman Steve Hegarty said law enforcement officials are familiar with gift card scams.

"It’s not exclusive to iTunes gift cards," he said.

John Boyle is the IT administrator for three parishes, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Riverview, Our Lady of Lourdes in Dunedin and Corpus Christi in Temple Terrace.

"We very quickly informed the parishes that they may see something like this as soon as we first got word of it," he said.

Boyle said several area churches have been targeted, with the scammers using the pastor’s personal name, but with a fake Gmail address, not the parish address.

"It’s really aggravating, but it is obviously very clever, because they are targeting faithful people who are typically generous people and using a public figure in the pastor," he said.

Tapp said the problem began about two months ago at his church and happened as recently as Monday. The emails start with an inquiry supposedly from a priest asking whether the staff member is in the office, follows up with a request for a favor and mentions that someone is in need.

Tapp said he has been told that the cards can be sold online for less than face value. He said the Diocese of Charlotte also has been targeted.

According to the Charlotte Observer, people in two Catholic parishes in that area received the fake emails, and a few ended up losing hundreds of dollars to an imposter claiming to be a long-time pastor.

"It’s really diabolical," Tapp said. "I’ve encouraged folks here in Hillsborough to connect with the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Department."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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