Orange-robed "fake monks" linked to a Chinese syndicate have been targeting Australia and New Zealand, with people being recruited in China to roam the streets to request money for sham charities.
Authorities in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland and Wellington have all warned about the scourge in the past year.
Details of the scheme emerged after a woman who worked as a fake nun in Auckland revealed she was hired by China's so-called "Blessings" syndicate, which charges 10,000 yuan (S$2,170) and trains people to masquerade as Buddhist monks, Taoist nuns, traditional Chinese medicine street doctors or fortune tellers.
The recruits are given costumes, as well as accessories such as prayer bracelets, amulets and spiritual guidebooks. The syndicate assists with arranging immigration or visa documents and travel to countries, which reportedly include Singapore, the United States and Canada.
The woman, who was not named, told The New Zealand Herald she was recruited in her native Zhejiang province and underwent a week of training. She said recruits were taught how to "size up" and approach donors on the streets.
"We were told that if we wanted to go to Western countries, then becoming monks or nuns were the better options because the West is still not so open to Chinese fortune telling or (traditional Chinese medicine)," the woman said. "The cash collected is shared with the syndicate leaders; the percentage split is done by negotiation."
In Sydney, many fake monks were seen in the city centre around the Christmas period, when the public tends to be more generous. Some were even seen targeting the crowds who brought flowers to a memorial for those killed in the December in a siege at the Lindt cafe in Martin Place.
Most of the monks in Sydney wore orange robes and had shaved heads.
According to media reports and accounts on social media, the monks usually give passers-by a small fake golden amulet with an image of Buddha on one side and the words "work smoothly lifetime peace" on the other before offering a "blessing" and then demanding money.
The Minister for Fair Trading in the state of New South Wales, Mr Matthew Mason-Cox, said the scam was illegal and "disgraceful". He said the fake monks were breaching the state's charities legislation because they were not licensed to canvass donations and may also be breaching consumer laws which ban "misleading and deceptive conduct".
But police said it can be difficult to intervene because the people collecting money do not explicitly say they are monks and those who are fleeced of money rarely make criminal complaints. Police in New South Wales said they have approached the allegedly fake monks in Sydney.
"Officers from Sydney City Local Area Command have spoken to these people on a number of occasions and determined no offence has taken place," a spokesman told The Straits Times.
The government in the state of Victoria last month said fake monks and nuns had targeted Melbourne residents and visitors in the city centre and popular tourist areas.
"They often approach by bowing their heads and smiling, before pushing a plastic hologram picture of Buddha into the pedestrian's hand and asking for cash," said the Consumer Affairs Minister, Ms Jane Garrett, in a statement.
In New Zealand, officials are investigating the cases of several people from China who worked for the Blessings syndicate.
Two fake monks and a nun reportedly left for Australia in January after aggressively targeting pedestrians in the centre of Auckland. New Zealand officials have alerted Interpol and Australian authorities about the trio and have contacted their office in China to warn of fraudsters applying for visas.
Buddhist organisations in Australia have repeatedly noted that monks and nuns are traditionally supported by their community and would never ask for money from strangers.
This article was first published on Feb 19, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.