Lakewood Church warns members about identity fraud following $600,000 theft

By Phil Archer - Reporter

HOUSTON - Lakewood Church is warning members they could be targeted by identity thieves in the wake of a $600,000 theft from a safe in the church office discovered Monday.

Houston police said about $200,000 in cash was taken.

On Tuesday, church officials sent out an email to members warning that those who donated another $400,000 by check or credit card should watch their accounts to ensure they aren't hacked by identity thieves.

The email reads:

Dear Member,          

We were heartbroken to learn today that funds were stolen from the church over the weekend. This includes cash, checks and envelopes containing written credit card information, and it is limited only to those funds contributed in the church services on Saturday, March 8 and Sunday, March 9, 2014.

If you made a contribution during these weekend services, we would encourage you to pay close attention to your accounts over the next several days and weeks and report any suspicious activity to your financial institution or credit card company immediately.

It is important to note this was not an electronic data breach, but was instead limited to donations made in the services on March 8 and 9, 2014. You were not affected if you put your offering in a drop box, you gave online or through other electronic means, or you made a bookstore purchase. We are working with the police to fully investigate the incident.

The funds were fully insured, and we are working with our insurance company to restore the stolen funds to the church. If you have any questions about this matter, please contact our Customer Service Department at 713-491-1506.

The integrity of our congregants' information is of utmost importance to us. And, we would like to thank you for your continued support."

Carl Galka and his wife, Hermilinda, attended service both Saturday and Sunday and left personal checks in the collection plate.

"We're wondering if we should cancel our checking account at the bank," Carl Galka said Tuesday. "Anything that missing because of fraud the bank will reimburse me for it, so I'm not so worried about that as them taking my identity, and them starting something I'm not going to have any control over."

It is reported that the thief got into the safe between 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 8:30 a.m. Monday.

Pastor Joel Osteen wasn't available for comment. However, the church issued a statement to congregants Monday night.

Church officials are not saying exactly how many members' personal financial information may have been compromised. Calls by Local Two Tuesday to church spokesman Donald Iloff, brother in law of Lakewood Pastor Joel Osteen, were not returned.

Church officials and Houston police are not saying how the safe was opened either, or if the break-in was recorded by security cameras.

Carl Galka and his wife credit the church for helping him recover after a workplace accident left him partially paralyzed a few years ago. They're not rushing to close their bank account yet.

"I'm just going to keep an eye on it," Carl Galka said.

Lakewood is ministered by Joel and Victoria Osteen and claims the largest congregation of any church in the world, with an estimated 43,000 people attending services each week.

In 2006, Iloff told the New York Times that collections at services average nearly $1 million a week, with an extra $20 million or so received by mail during the year.

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