It’s tourist season, and here come the monks
The Rev. Stephen Ayres of the Old North Church is a beacon of hospitality, welcoming throngs of visitors each summer to the storied Boston landmark.
But even a patient man of the cloth has his limits. In this case, he has been flustered and frustrated by Buddhist monk look-alikes who are pestering tourists for money, offering flimsy beads and cheap medallions.
“They’re a pain in the neck,” Ayres said.
In recent weeks, a gaggle of Buddhist monk impersonators has descended on several of the city’s leading tourist spots in hopes of cajoling “donations” from unwitting Bostonians and gullible out-of-towners, much to the chagrin of business owners on the downtown waterfront and nearby historic areas.
The pious-looking panhandlers have bedeviled others in New York, San Francisco, and across the globe from Canada to Australia.
Now, for the second straight summer, they are on the streets here, targeting Boston’s rich supply of tourists.
“I’ve dealt with one at the front gate, right at the entrance of the campus and in the way of people coming through,” Ayres said. “I also dealt with one at the back steps to the church. The gift shop director threw one guy off three times on a Saturday.”
They dress like Buddhist monks, with shaved heads and ankle-length robes for the men. Women are involved, as well.
But while they have the trappings, it’s all a trap. The ploy is simple. Approach a visitor, hand out a plastic bracelet or shiny medallion, then ask for a donation of a few dollars, said Joe O’Malley, general manager of Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
If the target balks, the items are usually taken back — sometimes snatched right off the wrist in a burst of angry hectoring.
“That’s what their hook is,” O’Malley said. “They’ll try to shake you down for money.”
Authorities in New Zealand have traced the scammers in that country to a Chinese crime syndicate that outfits them with monk’s clothing and helps arrange for immigration visas and overseas accommodations.
Last summer, the monks eyed Faneuil Hall’s teeming crowds as a potential pot of gold. But when the mall put up warning signs and alerted their security officers, the monks moved along, O’Malley said.
The signs, which are back this summer, include photographs of the monks and do not mince words. Think “Don’t Feed the Geese.”
“These are not real monks. They have been harassing our visitors,” reads one. “Please do not encourage them by giving them money.”
For now, the warnings seem to have done the trick, O’Malley said.
“Since the signs have been out, we’ve had very minimal impact on our property,” he said. “We found it was a deterrent.”
But the crackdown at Faneuil Hall Marketplace has apparently nudged the fake monks to other spots. Rick Natale, who runs a souvenir business between the New England Aquarium and Long Wharf, said he sees the monks every day.
But Boston police generally walk right past them, he said.
“We call them the Monk Mafia,” Natale said. “I stop what I can, but I’m running a business.”
On a recent afternoon, one of the monks approached a Globe reporter near the Aquarium to offer a bracelet and a medallion, inscribed with the words “work smoothly” and “lifetime peace.”
In broken English, the gray-robed man said he was from Thailand, bowed, and clasped his hands in prayer. But when the reporter balked at a $2 donation, his smile turned to a scowl, and the reporter was quickly separated from the trinkets.
Nearby, a woman working with the gray-robed man offered similar items. She opened a book to show a long list of signatures, which she said were from donors to a Buddhist temple construction project.
Natale later scoffed at the handwritten names and called them a ruse.
“There is no church,” said Natale, who estimated that 10 percent of people give money to the “monks.” Sometimes the donations are quite generous.
“I’ve seen $5, $10, even $20 handed over,” Natale said.
The scam is building a massive cloud of bad karma for the fake monks, said Sean Gonzalez, director of the Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies, based in Medford. As a result, he said, the public should feel sorry for them.
“Using a religion for personal gain creates heavy negative karma,” Gonzalez said. “Therefore, those engaging in these practices are creating much great suffering for themselves in the future, and that is a reason for us to feel much compassion for them.”
Boston police did not respond to requests for comment, and city officials offered only an obligatory warning.
“The city reminds residents and visitors to be cognizant and use good judgment when solicited for money or donations,” said Samantha Ormsby, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
To be sure, trying to clamp down on the monks amid large summertime crowds is a challenge, particularly when more serious concerns take priority. At the Old North Church, Ayres and his staff warn visitors when one of the monks begins to work the crowd.
“We’re on the fly trying to figure out, without disrupting our tourists, how to get this nuisance to go away,” Ayres said. “They seem to come out of nowhere.”
The monks aren’t just an irritant. Because most people have only so much generosity to spread around, they are competition.
“We’re asking visitors for donations ourselves,” Ayres said.