FORT MYERS, Fla. - Some churches in Southwest Florida are on alert for a group of so-called "professionals" who may be preying on the area's prayerful.
In its weekly bulletin, St. John XXIII Catholic church on Palomino Road in Lee County issued a notice to parishoners. "If there is anyone asking for money around the Church outside of Mass at our exits, do not give them any," the bulletin reads. "We have been notified by the police that there is a group of professionals who travel to various churches."
The notice goes on to encourage donations to the churches "Poor Boxes," which can assist those truly in need. The Diocese of Venice confirmed the notice in the bulletin, but nobody at St. John XXIII could speak with the media.
WINK News contacted Fort Myers Police, Cape Coral Police, the Lee County Sheriff's Office, and Southwest Florida Crimestoppers. None of the agencies had heard of any recent incidents at local churches. But LCSO says the problem has surfaced in the past.
"What's unusual is for it to happen in the summertime," says Stacey Payne with LCSO's Community Outreach. "Most of these types of scams will happen when the churches are full with our seasonal residents and our year round residents."
A spokesperson for CrimeStoppers said the warning in the church bulletin was alarming.
"These are good people," Trish Routte told WINK News. "[Criminals] are taking advantage of that, and that is something we do not want to see."
Routte says you are the first line of defense against unscrupulous panhandlers who may not really need your help.
"We know there are a lot of good people with giving hearts," Routte said. "But don't just give because you feel like it's the right thing to to do. If you truly want to give your hard earned money to somebody are to an organization, check it out first."
Local law enforcement encourage churches and their members to report any similar cases that may arise in the area.