Scammers emerge as predictably as earthquake aftershocks following natural disasters, making it imperative for consumers to be wary of unsolicited appeals to aid victims in Haiti.
The FBI and security experts warned on Thursday of the likelihood of scams as requests for donations start pouring in via e-mail, text message, telephone and Twitter.
Their key advice: Look carefully before you give money or personal information, and contribute to a known group.
Evidence of potential fraud already has surfaced.
More than 400 Internet addresses related to Haiti have been registered since Monday's devastating quake, Internet security expert Joel Esler said. The names reference Haiti and words such as "earthquake," "help," "aid," "victims" and "survivors."
Many of the Web addresses will likely prove legitimate and redirect to proven charity sites, said Esler, of the Bethesda, Md.-based SANS Institute's Internet Storm Center, which tracks viruses and other Internet problems. But many more will be bogus and associated with Web sites that host malicious software, spyware or other hazardous content, based on similar flurries of activity after Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami and other disasters.
A lot of these Web sites feature a "donate" button but either the money will never go to the relief fund or they will just harvest your credit card number for use later, Esler said.
Those who want to send money or assistance should contribute to organizations they are familiar with and should be careful not to respond to unsolicited e-mails, according to the FBI.
One such e-mail seeking help Thursday purported to be from a lawyer in Port-au-Prince whose entire family had died and who was given just days to live himself. He asked for assistance — and cash — for distributing his family fortune.
Not all bogus solicitations will be so obvious, or arrive marked as spam.
Here are other tips to help you steer clear of aid scams, from the FBI, charities and other sources:
— Don't click on links or open attachments contained within aid-related spam, even if they claim to contain pictures of the tragedy. The attachments may be viruses.
— Check out the organization at sites for the Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.org); the Foundation Center (http://foundationcenter.org), a New York-based authority on philanthropy; or Charity Navigator (http://www.CharityNavigator.org), an independent nonprofit organization that evaluates charity groups based on effectiveness and financial stability.
— Examine the Web address of a purported group. Avoid ones that end in a series of numbers and be aware that most nonprofits have sites that end with .org, not .com.
— Be extremely skeptical of Web sites that ask for detailed personal information, such as your Social Security number, birthdate or bank account and pin information. That may leave you vulnerable to identity theft.
The warnings shouldn't dissuade donors from giving, however. Many organizations are in need; a list can be found at the Foundation Center site, among others.
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