Parishioners of St. Margaret of York Catholic Church in Deerfield Twp., Warren County has experienced several waves of phishing emails and texts which falsely imply that its priests are seeking money or gift cards for more than a year. These scams have also occurred throughout the Archdiocese of Cincinnati as well as in other churches representing other faiths. The parishioners have received scam alerts when this has happened and a request to pray for the cyber-criminals to mend their ways. CONTRIBUTED

Warren County church targeted by scammers pretending to be priests

The Rev. Jason Bedel, pastor of St. Margaret of York Roman Catholic Church in Deerfield Twp., said there have been four to five waves of solicitations seeking gift cards, money, etc., since late 2018. He said the phony emails usually list him as the sender, but the latest wave included the name of the other priest in residence at the parish.

The scammers apparently collected phone numbers and email addresses of lay ministry leaders, parish council members and other parish staff as well as its weekly bulletin advertisers and contacted them through texts and emails.

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Bedel said the parish sent out a “scam alert” via email to parishioners on Monday warning them of the latest scam, asking them to contact the parish office at 513-697-3100 to verify any suspicious email or phone call and if it was sent by the parish staff. The scam alert also included tips for parishioners to protect themselves from cyber criminals and urged them to spread the word in their community.

St. Margaret of York isn’t the only church experiencing these scams. Mike Schafer, communications director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, said these scams have happened in other areas throughout the 19-county archdiocese as well as with other churches of other faiths.

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“A priest would never ask anyone to send gift cards to them,” Schafer said. “This has been an ongoing drumbeat over a series of months and we’ve had a couple of people fall for this scam in the past.”

Jennifer Schack, archdiocesan media relations director, said there have been variations of that scam at other parishes here and in other dioceses. She said the archdiocese’s most recent warning went to parishes in November 2019.

“They target religious organizations because people will send them money without asking questions,” Schafer said.

Sgt. Brian Hounshell of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office said he could not recall a church being targeted by scammers in the past but would not be surprised if it happened. He said residents are constantly being sent phishing emails and texts with addresses from all over the world.

Hounshell said fellow deputies and other law enforcement officers have been targeted as a “sender” in a scam and that no officer would send an email or text and ask someone to purchase a gift card to address a citation or make a warrant go away.

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The parish sent out these tips for identifying a phishing scam email and staying safe:

• The “name” on the sender’s email address may match that of your pastor, the actual email address will be different than the pastor or staff’s church email address.

• Any email message that asks for money, in any form (including gift cards, banking information, etc.) should be verified by contacting the perceived “sender” directly, in person or by phone, before responding via email, text, etc.

• Scammers sometimes try to initially engage the recipient with an email (without asking for the above information), trying to get them to reply.

• These scammers continue to target religious organizations because their methods work (people send them money without asking questions).

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