Scammers have been impersonating clergy from Nova Scotia’s Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth to send phishing emails to parishioners.

“We realized last week that emails, or fake emails, were being used to solicit favours: money, gift cards,” diocese spokesperson Aurea Sadi told CTV Atlantic from Halifax’s nearly 200-year-old St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica. “They were basically using fake emails with the names of several priests in our in our diocese… including the archbishop.”

It is unclear how many parishioners received such emails, which impersonated nearly half-a-dozen local clergy members. The Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth only became aware of the scam when email recipients began following up with their priests, who had no idea what “favours” they were talking about.

“I think this is the first time we’ve experienced any sort of phishing using names of priests in our diocese,” Sadi said.

Phishing refers to the fraudulent practice of impersonating a trustworthy person or entity via electronic communication to obtain money or sensitive information like passwords.

While the diocese does not believe that anyone has fallen victim to the phishing attempts, it has issued a warning.

“If you receive this type of email message from one of the priests in our diocese please do not respond in any way or attempt to contact the sender,” the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth advised on its website. “All our priests are accounted for and do not require assistance.”

According to experts, even if only a handful of people fall victim to such phishing attempts, payoffs can still be huge for the scammers themselves

“They tend to call that spear phishing, which is a lot more targeted,” Halifax-based cyber security expert Lilly Chalupowski told CTV Atlantic when asked about the impersonated priests. “Most phishing campaigns are quite generic.”

Authorities advise exercising extra caution if you believe you are being targeted by such a scam.

“Always check,” Halifax RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Jennifer Clarke told CTV Atlantic. “There’s nothing wrong with taking a moment and saying, ‘Listen, can I have your phone number and I will check and call you back?’”

With a report from CTV Atlantic’s Bruce Frisko