Scam artists have begun setting up bogus Web sites that resemble established charities seeking donations for victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami that has killed at least 150,000 people...

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Scam artists have begun setting up bogus Web sites that resemble established charities seeking donations for victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami that has killed at least 150,000 people in South Asia — then stealing personal financial information from would-be contributors.

The con style, known as “phishing,” has long been popular with tech-savvy swindlers, but it hasn’t been used on such a wide scale until now, consumer groups said.

“Con artists are going to strike when the iron is hot,” said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. “Everyone wants to help, and there are people who want to take advantage of that.”

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Phishing involves a scam artist putting out thousands, if not millions, of e-mails masquerading as an official appeal from a large charity. The e-mail directs potential donors to log onto a Web site that asks for credit-card information. One such site resembles that of the American Red Cross.

Consumer groups and security companies said they aren’t surprised, because online giving has become so popular. Several of the largest charities in the United States have reported a record amount of donations collected through their Web sites since the catastrophe.

Total private donations by Americans have swelled past $300 million, and even more donations are expected because the House and Senate last week unanimously passed a bill that allows anyone to claim a tax deduction in 2004 for a tsunami-relief donation made by Jan. 31, 2005.

How to protect yourself

Never give sensitive personal information
in an e-mail, instant message or pop-up window. Most legitimate businesses will not use these methods to ask for passwords, account or credit-card numbers or other confidential information.

Be wary of clicking a link
in a message or pop-up window that asks for personal information. Doing so could take you to a phony site where any information you give may be sent to the scam artist who built it.

Before you enter
any confidential information, find out if the site uses encryption to protect your data, and check to make sure you’re at the site you think you are.

Routinely review
your financial statements. Carefully check all your credit-card and bank statements monthly and regularly log in to any online accounts.

Improve your computer’s
security. Use a firewall, install antivirus software and update it routinely, and keep your software up to date.

— MSN Web site

“Three or four years ago, there wasn’t the type of sophistication with spam, but if 9/11 happened now, we would be seeing the same type of [schemes] happening,” said David Zumwalt, CEO of Privacy, a Dallas-based Internet-security firm.

A donor could be in jeopardy even if he just logs onto the phony sites and doesn’t give up any information.

Programs called spyware can collect financial information such as credit-card numbers stored on a computer’s hard drive and send it back to the spammer. More sophisticated spyware collects a user’s recent keystrokes, which may contain personal information.

“I’ve even seen it done with sites that masquerade as banks and even eBay accounts, but not with charities,” Zumwalt said. “This is just a new twist on an old trick.”

Other schemes are simpler.

Several e-mails making the rounds are similar to the classic Nigerian oil-magnate scam. They recount the death of loved ones in the tsunami and tell of a survivor trying to move millions of dollars from his estate into an offshore bank account. He promises a cut of the estate if only the respondent would send him cash up front.

“This is a very low-cost crime to commit,” Zumwalt said. “Spam is easy and cheap to send. When you couple the power of spamming with uneven enforcement in the world, there is a very high potential for fraud.”

“If you run a Google search on ‘tsunami’ and ‘contribute,’ you’ll come up with over 60,000 sites,” said North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. “Many of them are brand-new sites, and they’re not well established. People need to be careful.”

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a Chicago-based charity watchdog group, said donors also should be wary of charities that solicit money but are unequipped to handle relief efforts.

“You want to make sure that you’re giving directly to the cause you want, because there’s a risk the money could get diverted,” Borochoff said.

Material from The Associated Press and Newsday is included in this report.

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