- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

Internet scammers have pounced on the outpouring of good will toward the victims of the Asian tsunami in their latest scheme to con people out of their money.

Fake fund-raising messages have landed in the e-mail boxes of Internet users in the United States and other countries since the Dec. 26 catastrophe. Some of the messages appear to be direct appeals from the survivors; others are made to look as if they came from the organizations assisting the victims.

One message that appears to be from the disaster relief agency Oxfam’s branch in Hong Kong urges readers to deposit money into a bank account in Spain. Oxfam officials contacted police about the scam and warned the public yesterday.

“These kinds of tragedies are easy pickings for scammers. People are anxious to help out, and the scammers come out of the woodwork to take advantage of that,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a nonprofit charity watchdog group.

The American Red Cross has not received reports of scammers trying to trick people into making donations to tsunami relief efforts, a spokesman said.

Spokesmen for the offices of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti, both Democrats, and Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican, said they have not been contacted by victims of tsunami-related scams.

Mr. Borochoff and officials from other philanthropic groups urged consumers to donate only to legitimate charities and disaster-relief agencies, such as the Red Cross. The officials stressed, however, that even e-mail that appears to be from reputable organizations can be fake, so consumers should contact an organization before making a donation.

“We would encourage people to make their donations directly to recognized charities and aid organizations to ensure that they are used for the intended purpose,” said Andrew Lee, chief technology officer of Eset Software, a San Diego online-security firm.

Mr. Lee also warned that Internet users should be “very suspicious” of e-mail that claims to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files. The files could contain viruses, so users should open only those attachments they are expecting, he said.

E-mail scams are as old as the Internet, but they continue to thrive as more people go online.

Since 2002, the National Association of Attorneys General has ranked Internet and telecommunications scams at the top of its annual list of the 10 most-common consumer complaints.

An e-mail chain letter that asks readers to help Nigerian residents wire money out of the country still generates complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, even though officials from the agency have issued repeated warnings that the letters are fake.

One of the tsunami e-mail messages that appears to come from a victim strongly resembles the Nigerian chain letter.

The author says he is the son of Indonesian grocers who were killed in the disaster and asks for help in claiming his father’s life savings of 3.2 million euro from a bank in the Netherlands.

“I shall be willing to give a negotiable percentage of the money,” the message states. It urges the recipient to reply via e-mail “as the telephone system is not functioning at the moment.”

Not all the tsunami scams involve e-mail.

Robert L. Siciliano, an author and commentator on online security matters, said some people have reported scam artists going door to door and setting up booths in shopping centers to solicit “donations” for the tsunami victims.

“Before people give, they must beware,” Mr. Siciliano said.

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