A group of con artists dressed as Buddhist monks are duping people out of their cash at some of the city's busiest tourist destinations - and there is nothing the police can do about it.
Up to six men and women are believed to be involved in the scam, in which they approach people for donations of up to $50.
The scammers have shaved heads and are dressed in monks' or nuns' robes, and sometimes thrust small medallions or cards into the hands of strangers before asking for cash in return.
Some people have reported that the monks have stormed off when they are only given a few dollars.
A NSW Police spokeswoman said police had spoken to the people on a number of occasions. However they had not technically committed an offence because they did not claim to be monks or say that they were collecting money for a charity.
The scammers have been seen around the city, including at Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, Town Hall, Martin Place, Central railway station, Hyde Park and Parramatta.
Kim Hollow, the president of the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils, said Buddhist monks would not approach strangers on the street asking for cash.
"In no way do we condone ordained people, a monk or nun, wandering the streets collecting money," he said.
A business operator in Circular Quay said he first saw the "monks" about a month ago, before he was told by police officers on New Year's Eve that they had no affiliation with Buddhism.
"I first noticed that they were hanging around like the Greenpeace people. I just thought there was something wrong about them," the business owner, who did not want to be named, said.
"On New Year's Eve about eight police turned up at my business and spoke to one of these monks. They said they're frauds, they're here on tourist visas and collecting money.
"The police asked: 'Have you ever seen a monk asking for a donation before?' I said 'No, I guess not'. They asked if I'd ever seen a monk in Nike shoes? I haven't."
The business owner said the con artists approached people sitting in outdoor areas or those waiting for public transport.
He also had seen seen them soliciting for money at pubs in Darlinghurst.
"If you make a donation, you're allowed to write in their book. Obviously it's a special holy book. It's a beauty, this scam," the business owner said.
"The people giving a donation probably think their money's going to build a bloody charity thing in Burma and it's going straight into their pockets. It's wrong."
The police spokeswoman said police had not received any complaints about fraud offences being committed.
"While begging is not an offence, police would like to hear from anyone who believes they have handed over money to these people under false pretences," the spokeswoman said.
Mr Hollow said he was made aware of a similar scam operating in Western Australia recently but had no information about the Sydney operation.
He said when a monk became ordained, they agreed that their meals and accommodation would be supplied by members of the religion.
"It's not a good look for our community, we understand that. We're certainly looking into it," he said.
Anyone soliciting for funds at Circular Quay or Darling Harbour must have a permit from the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.
The authority's rangers said they had encountered the "monks" at Darling Harbour as far back as September last year, including six times in December.
They had also been seen repeatedly at Circular Quay in December.
However when the rangers approached them, the "monks" indicated that they did not speak English but understood that they had to move on.
Similar schemes have been operating in Asia for years, but appear to be new in Australia.
A Facebook Page, Fake Monks in Hong Kong, has been set up to shame those involved in a scam there. One person has posted a photograph of a monk in Hyde Park in Sydney on that page.
Online forums have been inundated with comments about the problem in Australia.
One man wrote that he had repeatedly seen fake monks near Central.
"They claim to be from Taiwan but one couldn't name his temple when I asked him," he wrote on one forum.
"Real monks don't wander the streets asking for donations for their trinkets, they are all fake. They get away with it because nobody would expect to duped by a kindly looking Buddhist monk. I don't know about Taiwan itself but this fakery is prevalent in China and in Seoul, around the Jogyesa temple."
A spokeswoman from NSW Fair Trading said that not only do scams like this cost the individual money, they also divert much needed donations away from legitimate charities and causes.
To protect themselves, consumers should approach charity organisations directly and contact Fair Trading if they have any concerns.
NSW Fair Trading advice on scams:
How to identify a potential ‘face to face’ charity scam:
- The person who claims to be collecting donations on behalf of the charity approaches you face-to-face and does not have any identification. Remember that even if they do have identification, it could be forged or meaningless.
- The person tries to put pressure on you by making you feel guilty or selfish if you don’t want to donate.
- The person asking for money cannot or will not give you details about the charity, such as its full name, tax status, address or phone number.
- The person gets defensive if you ask any questions about what the charity does and how much of the donation gets taken up by costs.
- The person asks for a cash donation and they don’t want to accept a cheque. Or, they want the cheque to be made out to them rather than to the charity.
- The person doesn’t want to give you a receipt. Or, they give you a receipt that does not have the charity’s details on it.
Protect yourself from charity scams
- Approach charity organisations directly to make a donation or offer support.
- If you are approached out of the blue by a collector ask to see their identification.
- Legitimate charities are registered at the state or territory level—in NSW check with the Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing to see if the charity is genuine.
- Contact NSW Fair Trading if you are concerned about any potential scams