Quake Aid: Let The Giver Beware

A man sits on a coffin intended for his mother who has yet to be found in the rubble of her home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010. An earthquake measuring more than 7 on the Richter scale hit Haiti on Tuesday, leaving thousands dead and many displaced.
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
Natural disasters often bring out the best in us -- millions of people eager to give their time and their money to help the victims. Unfortunately, disasters also bring out the worst in some people -- crooks trying to cash in on the generosity of others.

As pleas for money to assist victims of the quake pour in across the Internet, so, it appears, do fraudsters seeking to exploit Americans deep desire to help, reports CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian.

Web experts tell CBS News -- as occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- the crooks were at it within hours of the disaster. Ads on Goggle for charities were actually linking to malicious software sites. Scammers hiding behind bogus Web sites; Spam e-mail seeking donations to bona fide agencies like the Red Cross -- agencies which would never see a cent.

"It's amazing how the criminals in particular are utilizing some of our technology today for their own profit and gain. What's particularly amazing is how fast they are doing this," said Web security expert Dan Hubbard, of Websense.com.

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Today mobile devices have proven a double-edged sword when it comes to giving. On one hand they make it easier for groups like the American Red Cross to raise $3 million via text message in 48 hours. Donors simply texted the word "Haiti" to the number 90999 -- and a $10 dollar donation was billed to their phone.

But technology makes it easy for criminals to cash in as well.

"The cost of being a con person is almost nothing now,'' said John Abel, with Wired Magazine.

In the wake of the disaster, the FBI -- which has already received a multitude of complaints -- has warned donors to "apply a critical eye and do their due diligence" before responding to requests for money.

The Bureau cautioned consumers:

  • not to respond to "unsolicited (spam) incoming e-mails"
  • to be "skeptical of individuals representing themselves as surviving victims"
  • not give out "personal or financial information to anyone who solicits contributions"

    "They just look at opportunities like this, exploit them, because they must -- at this time they feel that people are particularly vulnerable," said FBI agent Paul Bresson.

    Another way to protect yourself, experts insist, is to visit Web sites like The Foundation Center or Charity Navigator to insure your money is going to the people that need it most