- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

CHICAGO

Even a weaker-than-expected Hurricane Gustav is thought to have wreaked billions of dollars in damage, leaving the Gulf Coast in significant need of charitable aid despite not matching the level of destruction of Katrina.

The storm, however, also presents a prime opportunity to dupe well-meaning charitable donors — a threat underscored by the sudden proliferation of Internet addresses related to Gustav. Sites are even being registered already for U.S. until late this week, and for other names designated for subsequent storms in 2008.

More than 200 Internet addresses related to Gustav were registered in the 24 hours after the storm hit the Gulf Coast, Internet security specialist Marcus Sachs said. This flurry of activity came on top of nearly 100 addresses set up in the preceding two days. The names reference Gustav or Hanna and words such as “help,” “aid,” “victims” and “survivors.”

Many of the Web addresses are legitimate and redirect to proven charity sites, said Mr. Sachs, director of the SANS Institute’s Internet Storm Center, which tracks digital viruses and other Internet problems. But many more are either for sale or are associated with IP addresses known to host malicious software, spyware or other hazardous content.

“Any time there’s a natural disaster, the scammers start setting up their Web sites,” he said. “Like with anything else, it’s buyer beware. Anywhere on the Internet you go, there’s a risk of fraud.”

Charitable groups hope the fact that Gustav wasn’t as destructive as feared won’t dissuade people from donating.

While damage didn’t approach the $41.1 billion in Katrina losses, estimates by risk management firms of losses caused by Gustav ranged from $2 billion to $10 billion, primarily in Louisiana.

“We still need people to donate,” said Peter Macias. “There have been thousands and thousands of people evacuated. Everybody’s impacted, not just people who live there but businesses as well.”

Looking back, hundreds of donation sites appeared online the day Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. Many, if not most, were scams, Mr. Sachs said.

As a result, the FBI and the government’s Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force are keeping an eye out for Gustav-related scams that they suspect will surface.

Baton Rouge, La., and executive director of the task force’s national command center, said consumers should be especially wary of new Web sites.

“If people care to donate, they should give to well-established charities that existed before the storm,” he said.

Another precautionary step is to check to see whether a group is among the legitimate charities listed at Give.org, the Better Business Bureau’s site.

The Red Cross is a popular recipient of charitable gifts, but it’s also a frequent target of scammers attempting to siphon off donations as bogus groups claiming Red Cross affiliation. Mr. Macias said the organization discovered 400 Katrina-related scams and already has its investigative team looking for Gustav “phishing” scams that try to trick people into divulging sensitive information.

So if you’re in a position to give, take steps to protect yourself, too.

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