Pop Goes The News – Fake monks and a bogus nun who are roaming the streets of Old Montreal are collecting thousands of dollars a week by scamming tourists – but the city, tourism bureau and police can’t or won’t do anything to stop it.
Several men posing as Buddhist monks and at least one woman pretending to be a Taoist nun walk around the busy historic district every day wearing brown robes. One of their favourite streets to target is Saint-Sulpice, where there is a steady stream of people on narrow sidewalks. (Similar fake monks are assigned to other tourist areas in Montreal.)
The scammers stop passers-by, slip a bracelet on their wrist or hand them a shiny trinket that will give them “blessings,” and then ask for a donation. If no cash is given, the fake monks often get hostile and pull the bracelet off the person’s wrist. Those who do hand over cash are often asked to give more and then offered a chance to add their names to a book of donors (which is designed to legitimize the scam). On some occasions, the scammer shows a potential donor a photo of a temple under construction to encourage a bigger donation.
Pop Goes The News followed one of the “monks” and the “nun” in Old Montreal for one hour each. They both collected between $60 and $100 in the hour.
Six out of every 10 people approached by the fake monk and half of the people approached by the fake nun declined to give money. Almost all of the people who donated said after that they were not aware that it was a scam. (One woman said she knew the monk was not real but she had no problem handing over $5 in exchange for a trinket he gave her.)
None of the money goes to a charitable cause. The New Zealand Herald reported in 2015 that a Chinese syndicate runs the global scam. Chinese citizens are trained to pose as monks and nuns with the promise of living in Western countries and are required to give a percentage of their earnings to syndicate leaders.
Pop Goes The News approached the fake monk while he took a cigarette break in the shade on Le Royer Street. He refused to name a monastery and walked away when asked where the money goes. The bogus nun hid her face with her hat and walked away when approached with the same questions.
The scam is not unique to Montreal, of course. It operates in cities around the world.
“They’re not real monks, they have no legitimate charitable cause – and despite the fakery, there’s little authorities can do to stop them,” reported The Sydney Morning Herald last year.
They are so ubiquitous in New York City, one local newspaper described the fake monks as “holy terrors.” The city’s High Line District posted signs with photos of the fake monks: “Please be aware. Do not give money to panhandlers.”
In Seattle, police told K5 News last summer that they receive several complaints about fake monks every year but don’t believe they are breaking the law. Philadelphia’s CBS affiliate reported on the scam in 2017.
Montreal police say there is nothing they can do unless someone is restrained or assaulted by one of the fake monks and calls 911 to complain. Unlike B.C. and Ontario, which adopted Safe Street Acts in 1999 and 2004 respectively to ban aggressive panhandling, Quebec has no provincial laws against asking people for cash. Montreal has bylaws covering loitering and soliciting donations from motorists on the street – but nothing that prevents the fake monks from taking money from tourists.
A Tourisme Montréal official, who declined to go on record, said issuing warnings about the scam to tourists would be “sending a message that our streets are not welcoming.”
At OldMontrealGuide.com (part of the parent company of this website), a warning about the fake monks appears at the top of the “Info” page.
In Boston, where fake monks are also a problem, signs are posted around the popular Faneuil Hall Marketplace warning: “Do Not Give Money To The Fake Monk Mafia!” They read: “These are not real monks. They have been harassing our visitors – please do not encourage them by giving them money.” A number to call security is provided.
In 2015, police in Toronto launched a crackdown on fake monks soliciting donations from people in popular tourist spots like Union Station and around the CN Tower. Several were charged under the Safe Streets Act for panhandling in an aggressive manner.
One fake monk was charged repeatedly, police said.
On YouTube, a video shows a fake monk in front of Toronto’s Rogers Centre rushing at the camera. Another video shows a fake monk in Hong Kong shouting “fuck off” at someone who captured him on video ripping off tourists. In Prague, a fake monk assaulted an Honest Guide camera operator and host Janek Rubeš.
All photos by John R. Kennedy. (New York City sign via YouTube / Honest Guide)