- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2001

It's caveat emptor as charities and others appeal for relief donations in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Only this time "let the buyer beware" should probably read "let the donor beware."
While newspapers and existing reputable charities like the American Red Cross immediately began asking for and accepting donations of relief money, hundreds of others immediately began sending out unsolicited e-mail known as "spam" asking for funds or promising to give a percentage of what they are paid for their products to relief agencies. Buyers and donors are told all or part of their money will go to aid victims or their families, but they often can't be sure it's true.
Sterling Time Co. of Hollywood, Fla., offered sales of "commemorative" prepaid telephone cards, with 10 percent of the proceeds going to "families and victims" of the attacks.
But the company listed an invalid return address copied from a nonprofit corporation, according to the anti-spam SpamCon Foundation of San Francisco.
"If someone you don't know is sending you an e-mail, you should always be wary," said Tom Geller, head of SpamCon.
Abby's Flowers & Gifts of Houston sent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unsolicited e-mail messages pledging to give 7.5 percent of its take from all floral sales through Columbus Day to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.
GiantSavings.com blanketed the Internet with e-mail titled "Like the rest of the world, we are shocked and dismayed." They urged readers to "do your part Help Now," and offered several electric devices for sale, pledging that "partial proceeds go to the American Red Cross." How much of the proceeds, the spam did not say.
All these companies and the many others sending out similar appeals insist they "are just trying to help," not intending to exploit the nation's grief.
But Philip Zepeda, director of online media for the American Red Cross, warned potential donors to be wary of "Web sites soliciting donations, allegedly on our behalf."
He said donors who want to be sure their money reaches the Red Cross can visit the organization's Web site at www.redcross.org/donate/donation-form.asp, or click on the donation-assistance features of its three online partners: America Online, Amazon and Yahoo.
Another Red Cross spokesman said the agency cannot spare staff time to check on each such claim, but it does gratefully accept whatever checks arrive from merchants and others. So there is no way to be sure that a firm pledging to donate 10 percent of its sales will not instead send in only a small fraction of that, if anything.
Scambusters, which investigates unsolicited e-mail, warns computer users that "If it's spam, it's a scam."
"I'm sure there are probably well-meaning people out there collecting funds for relief, but if you answer 'spam,' you don't really know," said Jim Lanford, an executive of the firm.
Some companies that have sent out "spam" insist they really are donating what they promise. "We gave the Red Cross our proposal, and they said it's great," said Nishreen Poona, who owns Abby's Flowers with her husband, Mike. "We invited them to go through our records and verify we're giving them the full 7.5 percent, but they declined and said they're happy if we just write them a check. We are not charging customers extra. We're giving away part of our profits."
And Sterling Time said it's sincere, too, insisting that the wrong address on its spam was inserted by a company that handles Sterling's Internet promotions.
"No one can call any of these people and companies exploiters yet, because we don't know what they will do," said Henry Schmit, a bunco-squad detective in Los Angeles. "But it really is a 'buyer-beware' kind of situation."

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