- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday warned that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, some people — which he described as a “devious few” — have sought to take advantage of the storm through a number of fraudulent schemes and bogus charities.

“To anyone who is contemplating any kind of fraudulent scheme that takes advantage of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, let me be very clear: Federal, state and local law enforcement officials are watching carefully, and we will have zero tolerance for these kinds of crimes,” Mr. Gonzales said at a press conference.

“If you engage in fraudulent behavior, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Mr. Gonzales said that while millions of Americans responded to the disaster with “the kind of generous spirit that has become the hallmark of our great nation,” others have sought to take advantage of the nation’s collective generosity.

For instance, he said, reports have indicated that some criminals have attempted to profit from the disaster by posting fraudulent Internet sites to lure well-intentioned donations from unsuspecting donors.

“There is no place for crimes of this nature in our compassionate society,” he said. “We have a responsibility to safeguard the integrity of the relief efforts that provide generous support to victims who desperately need help.”

He said the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force would seek to deter, investigate and prosecute disaster-related federal crimes, such as charity and insurance fraud.

“I am here today to emphasize that the work of this task force is a top priority for the department,” he said. “We must ensure that those offering a helping hand do not become victims themselves. And that those found preying on the compassion of our citizens are punished.”

The FBI also warned yesterday that many of the 4,000 Web sites advertising relief services for Hurricane Katrina could be phony and that about 60 percent of them originate overseas — a sign they may be bogus.

“Just like these natural disasters bring out the best in people, they also bring out some of the worst elements of the criminal element out there, who are willing to take advantage of those who are willing to give and those who so desperately need the relief,” said Chris Swecker, chief of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

Mr. Swecker said the FBI is investigating sites of charities thought to be fraudulent. He said there are about 4,000 sites advertising Katrina relief services, and about 60 percent of them are coming from overseas.

Red Cross General Counsel Mary Elcano said her organization had hired a security company to scan the Internet for fake e-mails that try to trick people into providing credit card numbers and personal information on a Web site that looks like the one run by the Red Cross.

“If the companies don’t go away … the Department of Justice will prosecute and, if necessary, the Red Cross will file a civil action to seek restitution,” she said.

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