An innocent Centralia priest has been caught up in an e-mail scam, which conned at least one of his friends out of $600.
It all started with an urgent e-mail: A cry for help from a priest supposedly stuck in Africa, desperate for almost $3000 to cover hotel bills and plane fares.
“I was not scamming people,” said Father James Offutt. “That was not me.”
Father Offutt, with Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Centralia, says he doesn’t know who wrote the e-mail. What he does know is that it was sent to all of his e-mail contacts – over 1000 people.
“It was very frustrating and really embarrassing,” said Offutt. “Because some people were asking ‘Do you really need the money or is it a scam?'”
Hackers hijacked his e-mail while he was on a three month religious trip to Rome. They concocted a story, saying he “misplaced” his wallet and needed “urgent” assistance.
Bill Needham, an 81-year-old retired World War II veteran, fell for the scam.
“I was concerned,” said Needham. “And wanted to help him, of course, if I could.”
Needham, a close friend of Father Offutt, didn’t hesitate to help. He wired $600 to an address he was given in London.
“[People] were taken advantage of and they were generous,” said Offutt. “They thought they were helping me and they really weren’t.”
Even his bank was fooled by the letter and offered him a loan.
Travis Ford, a consumer expert with the Missouri Division of Finance, said the e-mail contained “a lot of red flags” and “things that you see in Nigerian [scam] letters.”
The reason it seems like a Nigerian scam is because it is.
Believe it or not, the hacker actually e-mailed Offutt recently – not to con him but to confess. He said he was from Nigeria and cited poor living conditions as a motivating factor for the scam.
Ironically, he said it was God who convinced him to come clean.
“OK, sure, whatever. I just sent it to the FBI,” said Offutt. “I’m not saying he didn’t have that experience. But I wish he had had it a little earlier.”