SAUGANASH — An online scammer is using a lookalike email from the pastor of Queen of All Saints Basilica in Sauganash to try to trick parishioners into sending money.
The Rev. Simon Braganza alerted parishioners via Facebook and Instagram Thursday evening that his email account was “ghosted” by someone “phishing” for money.
According to Braganza’s post, the culprit sends emails from an address that appears to come from him, but upon close inspection is from another email address, asking people to buy gift cards for someone in need. For Braganza, this has happened a few times over the last year, most recently in September.
“It’s happened many times,” Braganza said. “They look at people who are trusted and people who are ready to help others, someone like a priest. That’s what bothers me,” Braganza told Block Club.
He added that he does not believe anyone fell for the latest attempt, but that at least one person was duped in the past. Braganza also said he knows of a couple other priests in the suburbs who were impersonated in similar scams. He also said that if he was reaching out to parishioners to help someone, “I would not ask people to send me gift cards.”
According the Archdiocese of Chicago spokesperson Susan Thomas, the archdiocese is aware of the issue and has had one other priest victimized in February by Internet scammers.
“It’s just terrible that people are posing as priests but luckily it’s not a huge issue with the archdiocese,” Thomas said.
The victims are asked to purchase several gift cards, take a photo of them, and send those photos to the “pastor.” Then, because the gift cards contain numeric code, scammers can then turn the gift cards into actual purchases.
These scams are not new or isolated to the Chicago area. Scammers have targeted parishioners by posing as pastors all over the country over the last two years, from Grand Rapids, Michigan; to Austin, Texas; Scranton, Pennsylvania and Miami, Florida.
In June 2018, after parishioners of several Catholic churches in Georgia were targeted, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr sent out a scam alert to residents of his state describing one version of the scam.
“In one version of this impostor fraud scheme, con artists send out emails purporting to be from the Pastor of the church asking for emergency donations to help someone in need. The email, which uses the Pastor’s name but a phony email address, instructs the recipient to provide the money by purchasing an iTunes gift card and mailing it to a different address,” the alert read.
Additionally, in March 2019, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a consumer alert advising Texans to be alert of the same scam.
The office of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul offered some tips on how to avoid similar scams.
“We encourage people to think twice before responding to unsolicited emails that seek a donation or encourage the consumer to make a purchase. Generally, when in doubt, do not reply or open any email attachments. Instead, people should contact the organization directly to find out whether it is a legitimate solicitation,” said Raoul spokeswoman Annie Thompson.
Thompson encouraged people to call the office’s consumer fraud hotline at 800-386-5438 or file a complaint on its website if they are targeted.
Thomas Johnson, director of public and board relations at the Better Business Bureau of Chicago, said similar scams have targeted businesses recently.
“We had this happen with CEOs and we had a press conference about this in September. I know the Archdiocese in Rockford was being hit by this also. We are well aware that it’s a nationwide thing. It’s been around for awhile and they go for leaders of companies, organizations and churches,” Johnson said.
Pam Hautzinger, parish secretary at Queen of All Saints said this has been an ongoing problem for Pastor Braganza.
“It’s basically something he’s been dealing with on and off for at least a year and it’s just happened again,” Hautzinger said. She added that his email was not hacked, rather it was someone sending emails from a separate account that resembles Pastor Braganza’s.
“If you look at the actual email address it is totally incorrect. The problem is when it comes through your email it says Reverend Father Braganza,” Hautzinger said.
People who suspect they are the victim of a scam can also contact the Federal Trade Commission as well as their state attorney general’s office.