Mumbai: The Catholic Church in Mumbai has issued a warning to its members about fraudsters on social media impersonating priests to solicit donations for charity. In many cases, the Instagram and Facebook accounts of priests were cloned, with the fraudsters downloading images of the priests and creating fake profiles to seek donations on platforms like Google Pay. The church filed a complaint with the cyber crime cell of the Mumbai Police, who have been able to track down the fraudsters.
The Archdiocese of Bombay has jurisdiction over more than 100 churches with over half a million members. Church members reported that emails and messages were sent in the name of at least four priests, including Bishop Barthol Barretto, who is based at Our Lady of Salvation Church, Dadar, also known as the Portuguese Church.
Social media accounts of young priests were hacked
Father Nigel Barret, spokesperson for the Archbishop of Bombay, said that the social media accounts of many young priests were targeted by the fraudsters. "There was a spate of such incidents four months ago. We took action accordingly, and now there is some kind of closure. Priests came to know their accounts were cloned when people called them to ask whether they received the donations. They would ask, 'Father, did you get the money?' The churchgoers have a relationship with the priests and want to help. We have asked our members not to take any such messages at face value. We told them to call up the priest before donating to ensure that it is not a hoax," said Barret.
Father Joseph D'Souza, parish priest at Our Lady of Health Church, Cavel, Kalbadevi, said, "There has been a directive from the archdiocese that priests are being targeted by people who create fake profiles using information from their social media accounts." D'Souza mentioned that while he was not a target of the fraudsters, many of his colleagues were victims.
Fraudsters masquerade as priests on social media
One of the priests who was targeted by the scammers was Father Lincoln Rebello, priest at Divya Kripa Church in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai. "Somebody used the information on my Facebook profile to create a page impersonating me. Many of my friends on Facebook received messages asking for donations. Nobody fell for the scam because they called me on my private telephone number to confirm," said Rebello adding that he later sent a message to all his Facebook friends to warn them about the fraudsters.
Church organised cyber awareness workshops
Recently, the church organised 'cyber awareness' workshops for priests to help them take steps to ensure that their social media profiles are protected. This followed a notice to all churches in September with the warning about the scamsters.The cyber crime branch of the Mumbai police said they will require more time to disclose information about the complaint from the church.
Dolphy Dsouza, a resident of Orlem, Malad, and the president of the Bombay Catholic Sabha, an association of church members, said that a 'general advice' was issued to take cognisance of the issue. "This is the first time where messaging apps were used to target church-goers," said DSouza, adding further that the church has laid out a clear procedure as far as donations are concerned.
"We have a laid-out procedure for charity. We have the means of Sunday announcements and written notices at parishes. The archbishop issues circulars, so all these things (donations) go through official channels. I would not say that people are gullible but when they hear of somebody needy they want to donate. This is not the last we have seen of such frauds. People will go on phishing," added Dsouza.