An 85-year-old retired priest who still conducts one mass a week at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Riverside was recently scammed out of the $61,800 life savings.
But a fundraising campaign started by a deacon at St. Mary’s has fully recouped the priest’s loss.
In August, the Rev. Robert Banzin, known as Father Bob, the former associate pastor at St. Mary’s, received an email from who he thought was PayPal telling him that there was a $699 charge on his account from eBay. Knowing that that was incorrect — Banzin had never bought anything on eBay — he searched online and found a telephone number purported to be for PayPal support. He called the number and was told that they were investigators and would put him in touch with investigators from PayPal. They said that Banzin’s account had been hacked and that they would get the $699 back.
After working with three people for about a week, they managed to get Benzin to wire them money from his Citibank account. They finally were able to convince Banzin to empty his bank account and send them all the money left in the account as a wire transfer.
“They were very friendly and very concerned and said that the goal was to save my money from the hackers,” Banzin said.
But a few days later, Banzin when the money was not put back into his account as promised, Banzin realized that he had been tricked. He called Citibank, but couldn’t stop any of the wire transfers that had been made.
Banzin, who lives in a condominium in the Uptown, contacted the Chicago Police Department. Police officers interviewed Banzin at his home, but said that there was little likelihood that they could get his money back.
“I really got angry at myself for falling into this,” Banzin said.
But the financial crimes investigators from CPD told Banzin that scams like this happen all the time and that he should see himself as a victim and not blame himself.
Banzin relies on his savings to supplement his Social Security payments and the small pension that he receives from the Archdiocese of Chicago. He drives a 2003 Mercury Couger.
“It seems to be on its last legs, so I was always worried if something actually happens, I would have to fix it or get a new car,” Banzin said.
This fall, Randy Belice, a lay deacon at St. Mary’s, noticed that Banzin seemed to be out of sorts and not his usual self. After Belice found out that Banzin had been scammed, he and his wife, Paula Jo, started a GoFundMe site to raise money for Banzin to at least allow him to pay his property taxes and perhaps get new tires for his car.
“It was devastating, heartbreaking,” Belice told the Landmark. “The idea was to get him back to some financial stability.”
Belice started the GoFundMe site in mid-October. Then an intern at Channel 7 news spotted it and arranged for Banzin to be interviewed by Channel 7 reporter Sarah Schulte. His story went viral.
Media stories drew attention nationwide. Donations to the GoFundMe site poured in and the site had raised $63,594 by the time Belice decided to stop taking donations on the afternoon of Nov.1.
“That just happened, by the grace of God, I would say,” Belice said.
Earlier in his career, Banzin had worked as a counselor and religion teacher at the former Quigley South High School and had been at priest at other churches in suburban Chicago before coming to St. Mary’s 20 years ago. He has been semi-retired for the last 15 years, but continues to conduct one mass a week at St. Mary’s.
“A lot of people that really stepped up were his former students,” Belice said.
Contributions came from near and far, including former students who now live as far away as Maryland and California. Other contributions came from parishioners at St. Mary’s and from strangers who saw the Channel 7 story or read about what happened to Banzin in the Tribune. The St. Mary’s Men’s group and the St. Mary’s Knights of Columbus council also made donations. The largest single donation was $5,000.
Banzin said he was overwhelmed by the response and generosity.
“It blew my mind,” Banzin said. “It was overwhelming for me and I’m still trying to process it. I, emotionally, don’t really know how to handle it. I’m very grateful intellectually for all the goodness and kindness. And all I can say is that’s what the church really is; it’s the people in the pews who are the church, who help and support each other.”
Banzin said that he didn’t do the media interviews to help the fundraising campaign, in fact he asked Channel 7 not to mention it, but to warn other people about scams.
“I was really interested in making sure that others know the story and don’t fall into the same mess,” Banzin said.
Belice said that Banzin is a superb preacher who has a strong social justice orientation.
Although the GoFundMe site has already raised more money than Banzin lost and is no longer accepting donations, those who still wish to contribute to help the reverend can do so by making a contribution at the parish offices at 40 W. Burlington in Riverside.