“Hi, this is Rev. Joe Schmoe, Regional Administrator of the Help Needy Christians fund. I notice from your profile that you’re Catholic, and wonder if…”

Ever been DM-ed on Instagram outta the blue? Sure, you block sleazy strangers trying to chat you up, but priests or Religious? Surely they must be legit…

Sadly, the scam artists of social media will stop at nothing to make a quick buck. A growing number of local Catholics have been contacted from Instagram accounts supposedly of priests or Religious sisters. Such accounts typically feature “Catholic” imagery, Bible verses, and photos of the religious community.

The truth is that most clergy and Religious are so busy with their liturgical and pastoral duties that they have no time to chat up strangers around the world on social media. The account could well have been created by a scammer stitching the name of a genuine priest/Religious together with photos from another parish’s social media accounts.

How can you verify if this person is who s/he claims to be?

  • Be suspicious if the profile contains obvious irregularities, e.g. the priest is from the “Archdiocese of England” (which doesn’t exist), or the ethnicities/culture depicted in the photos do not match the alleged location.
  • An obvious red flag is if the account has switched off commenting – thus preventing people from publicly questioning the account owner or warning others.
  • If you reply to the stranger (something we don’t recommend), be wary if s/he keeps re-directing the chat back to financial issues, e.g. how much money their charity needs, how much money you earn, what you can give.
  • If someone claims to be a priest, ask to see his celebret. Every single Catholic priest in the world has this document, issued by his diocese certifying that he is a priest in good standing. You can contact the diocese listed to check if this person is a real priest who owns this Instagram account.

If you suspect the account is a scam:

  • Report the profile to Instagram. You can alert the diocese of the person whose identity has been stolen, especially if it is someone in the Archdiocese of Singapore. Depending on the nature of the messages, you may wish to make a police report. Reporting scammers is a Christian work of mercy: it protects others from being targeted, and it provides the scammer (if caught) with the chance to amend his/her ways.
  • Never send money, reveal your bank account details, or offer to make financial transactions on their behalf. Do be aware that charity administrators never ask for funds to be sent to their personal bank or PayPal accounts.
  • Do not share personal details (such as your full name, address or family situation). The scammer might target your friends and family next, using those details to convince them that s/he is your good friend.

Religious scams are a form of blasphemy, abusing the good reputation of God’s clergy and Religious for personal gain. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “It is blasphemous to make use of God’s name to cover up criminal practices… The misuse of God’s name to commit a crime can provoke others to repudiate religion.” (CCC 2148)

We are called to be good stewards of our personal resources. If God has blessed us abundantly and we want to help others, we should ensure that our money goes to legitimate causes – and not to some scammer’s drug habit or money laundering operation.

Written by Estella Young

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