Search for the Rev. Adam Hamilton on Facebook and you'll likely get two seemingly identical pages to choose from.
What's different about them is that one Hamilton uses to publicize upcoming sermons at 18,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Mo..
The other was started by a scammer trying to con people into supporting phony church mission projects.
It's a fake, yet you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference.
Facebook hoaxes are nothing new. But now comes a new wrinkle: crooks preying on the prayerful by impersonating high-profile ministers on Facebook.
Among those who've been subject this form of identity theft are some of the best-known evangelists in the business, such as Rick Warren, Joel Osteen and Craig Groeschel.
In addition to Hamilton, who leads the largest United Methodist congregation in America, the scammers have impersonated Bob Coy, who leads the 30,000-member Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Frank Santora of Faith Ministries, a megachurch in Danbury, Conn.; as well as a pastor in South Africa who died 16 years ago.
There's no official estimate of how many people have fallen for the scheme. The FBI, which tracks internet scams, declined to comment.
But bureau spokeswoman Jenny Schearer said the incidents underscore a central truth for consumers.
"On the internet," she said, "anyone can pretend to be anyone else."
Ministers who've been stung say that almost as soon as Facebook takes down one phony page, new ones pop up.
So widespread has the con become that TV evangelist John Hagee posted a video on You Tube advising his followers to be wary of Facebook solicitations in his name.
Hamilton, similarly, continues to alert his congregation on line and preached a sermon titled "Evil in the Name of God" that can be seen on the church's web site, cor.org.
"Somebody is using my pictures and my name in order to take advantage of other people and to hurt them," he said that Sunday, "and that really makes me mad."
Hamilton is still angry and continues to warn his congregation not to be taken in by phony appeals.
"It sounds to me like another Nigerian scam," he said.
In fact, it's a bit more sophisticated than those laughable email appeals from phony Nigerian princes promising large fortunes in exchange for some up-front cash.
Even the Internet-savvy might be fooled initially by this new fraud because scammers appropriate the identities of trusted figures who commonly do ask for donations to support mission projects. They send friend requests to people already on the friends lists of a religious leader's legitimate Facebook page, then ask for help supporting an orphanage in India, say, or mission work in Africa.
Such an appeal from the fake Facebook page of Hawaiian pastor Wayne Cordeiro convinced at least one member of his congregation to wire $1,000 to the scammer, according to the Facecrooks.com, which tracks fraud on the Internet.
"It was claiming that Pastor Wayne was in Africa," the woman's son, Ryan Riviera, told a Honolulu TV station back in March. "It was a church that was about to crumble … if they didn't come up with X amount of dollars."
To Hamilton's knowledge, none of his congregation has fallen for the repeated requests for money, but he can see how people might be taken in.
"After all," he said, "we talk about raising money all the time for African projects."
Victims of the scam are not confined to pastors and church-goers in the United States. Others stung include followers of Nigeria evangelist Enoch A. Adeboye, as well as those receiving solicitations from someone pretending to be a South African pastor named Ed Roebert, who died in 1997.
"We have had to deal with 5 to 10 of these fake pages or profiles," Roebert's son, Andrew said. "The same person every time. He started sending messages to his friends to ask whether they have prayer requests. He sends them scriptures and then once he has their attention, he asks for money."
Requests for donations through social media should always be a red flag, Internet security experts say. After the Newtown school shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings, for instance, scam artists tried to take advantage of the well-meaning and gullible by getting them to transmit donations to phony charities.
However, legitimate charities typically use Facebook as a way to direct people to their official websites, not to garner donations directly through social media.
"It's too thorny to do it through Facebook," says retired FBI agent Jeff Lanza. "It's too easy to set up a Facebook page."
Searching for solutions
Scott Toby found that out after his father, a popular pastor in Waco, Texas, died of brain cancer in December. A couple of months before Mike Toby's passing, Scott Toby had set up a Facebook page in his father's name so the 5,000-member congregation at First Baptist Woodway Church could get news of their pastor's health.
After his passing, a fake Mike Toby page appeared.
Facebook took it down, when asked. But other fake pages have popped up since. The cover photo on the latest is of Mike Toby with his arm around an associate pastor who died in a car wreck in January.
"It's frustrating," Scott Toby said. "I guess it's the nature of the world."
Hamilton and others wish Facebook could come up a better system to block phony pages from being created in the first place. Perhaps software could recognize when two pages have identical profiles, pictures and cover photos, they said.
In Hamilton's case, for example, the fake page uses the same cover photo of him and his wife at a lake.
"What I don't understand is why Facebook can't do anything about this," Hamilton said.
It's not that the technology is not there. But Facebook spokesman Frederic Wolens told The Star that using such a photo ID system wouldn't work.
"We have seen far too many people use similar profile/Cover photos to make this system meaningful," he said in an emailed response to a request for comment. "One example was the recent Human Rights Campaign … where we saw literally millions of people using the same profile photo."
Facebook will take down fake pages on request, but, as in the case of Hamilton, they keep reappearing.
Luckily, there are some ways for consumers to avoid being duped, the experts say. Always be suspicious when a current a Facebook friend seemingly sends you another friend request. Verify it with that person first by phone, email or in person.
"Obviously if you contact them via Facebook the scammer will lie," according to facecrooks.com.
Another tip off is that phony Facebook pages tend to have far fewer "likes" than the real ones and there are often intentional misspellings in the page name to get around Facebook's rules that limit one page per person.
Finally, it's highly unlikely that a nationally known minister like Hamilton is going to friend you.
Not that he isn't a friendly guy, says Church of the Resurrection associate communications manager Cathy Bien, but Hamilton long ago passed the 5,000 friend limit that Facebook imposes on every page.
"He's not accepting any more friends," Bien said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services