Scammer poses as priest, demands gift cards

SHARONVILLE, Ohio — A scammer impersonating Father Ed Burns of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church extracted thousands of dollars from parishioners who believed they were purchasing gifts for a friend struggling with cancer.

“I’m glad there are still people with generous hearts,” the real Father Burns said Friday night. “That’s a good thing, but it’s just really sad when that’s taken advantage of.”

Jan Deters, who has attended St. Michael’s for more than 20 years, received a text from the still-unidentified person posing as Burns while she was in the hospital dealing with a real medical emergency. Her cousin, who lives in an assisted living facility, was receiving an operation; Deters was watching over her.

The stress might be part of the reason she didn’t immediately question the text, she said Friday. It came from an unknown number, but she didn’t have Burns’ real one. She assumed it was him.

“He asked me for a favor,” Deters said. “So I was like, ‘Okay, Father. Sure. I can do it.’ He was basically asking for me to buy some Steam cards, which I’d never heard of, and send the numbers on the back to a certain phone number. It was supposed to be for his friend who had cancer and was in the hospital.”

Steam is an online video game shop run by Valve, the studio behind hits such as “Team Fortress 2” and “Portal.” Gift cards can be purchased at many major retailers, including Walmart and Best Buy.

That’s exactly what Deters did: $600 in Steam cards. A friend purchased $300. Other parishioners — the real Burns said at least three — contributed even more, ultimately handing thousands over to the con artist. When Deters tried to call the number to talk, she received text messages saying first that Burns was at a conference and then that he had a doctor’s appointment.

Her stomach began to sink. The following day, when the scammer, requested she buy even more cards she realized she’d been tricked.

“I thought I was past that kind of thing,” she said. “If I get an email or a text that looks fishy, I just delete them, but they used his name and it caught my attention. I didn’t have his phone number, so unfortunately I bought into it.”

She was embarrassed, she said, and angry on behalf of both herself and Burns.

Burns said he was at first angry at the scammer but soon softened.

“What’s going on in their life?” he said. “What’s happening with them that they’re resorting to this type of activity? Really, I feel bad for the person.”

Despite her humiliation, Deters said she wanted to share her story with the public in case the scammer — still neither identified nor arrested — attempted to take the same con to a different faith group.

“We just want other people to know, so that this doesn’t happen to someone else – that some other pastor or minister’s good name is used to scam us,” she said.

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