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Tooting church recovers £138,000 lost in scam

27 July 2022

Robert Käufeler

All Saints’, Tooting

All Saints’, Tooting

A CHURCH in south-west London that lost almost £140,000 to con artists last week has been told that it will be compensated in full.

Two members of the PCC of All Saints’, Tooting, in Southwark diocese, were duped by the scammers, who stole practically all of the church’s funds. The church launched a fund-raiser to help pay the immediate bills, and on Thursday afternoon (28 July) were informed that Lloyds Bank would compensate them for the lost money.

“It feels like an answer to prayer,” the Vicar of All Saints’, the Revd Mae Christie, said. She had never expected to find herself praying for a bank, she said. 

The story began on Wednesday of last week, when one of the church officers received a text message that purported to be from the NHS. The message informed them that they had been in contact with someone with Covid-19 and needed to order a free test, but requested bank details to pay for postage and packing.

After entering the details they realised that it might be a scam, and promptly cancelled their card. Their suspicion seemed to be confirmed when they then received a call from their bank, telling them that any accounts to which they had online access had been compromised.

But this call had actually been made by the scammers, who were using the information that they had gathered from the response to the earlier text message.

Concerned about the church’s accounts, to which they had online access, the church officer contacted another member of the PCC so that they could authorise the steps that the scammers — posing as bank employees — told them were necessary.

In reality, they were draining the church’s various bank accounts. This included the organ restoration fund, totalling about £60,000, and the account used for day-to-day expenses, along with the entirety of the church’s reserves. 

By the next night, £138,000 had been stolen from the church's accounts. In addition, the scammers took money from the personal accounts of the two church officers.

Ms Christie announced the news to the congregation on Sunday morning, and appealed for help in paying the church’s daily expenses.

The church launched a JustGiving page to cover its immediate expenses, and by Wednesday morning, more than £4000 had been raised. Ms Christie said that the page would now be closed following the bank’s decision to compensate for the lost funds.

The salaries of two part-time employees were covered this month by a loan from the diocese of Southwark, whose proactive support Ms Christie praised.

Last Friday morning, an email was circulated to all churches in the diocese to warn them of the dangers of such a scam, and asking them to be vigilant.

Ms Christie explained on Monday that, although it was “hard to share” the news, she felt that it was important that other churches were warned of the dangers.

Although there is no indication that the church officer who received the initial text was targeted owing to their position in the church, she suggested that criminals might now be tempted to target other PCCs.

Ms Christie has also asked people to pray for the scammers. “They must be missing something in their lives to behave in this way,” she said on Monday.

Before the service on Sunday morning, Ms Christie was standing in the sacristy when a regular member of the congregation, who did not yet know what had happened, came in and handed her a £10 note for the church’s funds.

“I looked at it and thought: ‘That’s all the money we have right now,’” she said, noting that this was how the money that was taken had built up over the years, with church members “giving up their time, and their talents, and their treasure”.

She said that the two church officers who were deceived, and who also lost money, felt a sense of responsibility. They were “very intelligent and very careful” people, she said, who were only trying to do their utmost to protect the church.

One of them had told Ms Christie that the church would be stronger for having gone through this experience, and she agreed. “All of us are resolute that we won’t let it stop us. They can steal our money, but they cannot steal our joy,” she said, highlighting that on Sunday morning two children were baptised.

The church is not planning to cancel any of the events they have planned for the coming months. “We don’t have money now, but we still have everything,” Ms Christie said.

Action Fraud, the UK’s fraud and cyber-crime reporting centre, advises the public to stop to think before parting with money, and to challenge anything that seems at all suspicious.

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