Watchdogs warn of Haiti relief scams

on January 15 2010 10:00 AM

U.S. law-enforcement agencies and charity watchdogs have warned that con artists may use Haiti-relief scams to take advantage of an outpouring of generosity after the Haitian earthquake to steal cash and sensitive financial information from potential donors.

Relief scams may range from phishing emails that direct potential donors to phony relief websites, to con artists who target grief-stricken friends and family in the Haitian community with offers to help locate or financially assist possible victims. Some fraudsters may even claim to be victims themselves, asking for direct financial assistance.

Beware of people sending emails or spams claiming to be individuals who need help, said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy in Chicago. It's very easy to throw up a website that appears to be a legitimate charity even if it's not.

The FBI also warned Wednesday that identity thieves may try to play on donors' emotions to provide personal or financial information they wouldn't normally give out. Identity thieves use the information to impersonate the giver and then open fraudulent financial accounts or commit other crimes.

Relief-related scams cropped up soon after other natural disasters, such as the Asian tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In one such case, two brothers from Texas were convicted in 2007 of wire fraud and identity fraud in a disaster-relief scam following Hurricane Katrina. That involved a website purporting to be that of the Salvation Army.

A link on the site directed givers to a number of PayPal accounts that were set up using stolen Social Security numbers and personal information. All told, the brothers collected more than $48,000 from 250 victims before the scam was detected and PayPal froze the accounts.

So how can you avoid getting ripped off? Here are some tips:

Stick with reputable charities. The American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity-watchdog group, has a list of top-rated Haiti relief organizations here. (http://www.charitywatch.org/hottopics/Haiti.html) You can also verify the legitimacy of other charities that claim to provide Haiti relief here.

Donate to charities, not individuals. Be skeptical of an individual claiming to be a victim or official asking for donations on social-networking sites -- even if that individual is vouched for by someone you know. Your friend, colleague or family member may have been scammed, and is now inviting you to be a victim, too.

Don't respond to unsolicited emails. Delete unsolicited charity emails and never click on links contained in any email you don't recognize. Also dump unsolicited emails that claim to have photos of Haiti victims or other graphic disaster pictures in attached files -- the files may contain viruses or programs that can steal personal or financial information from your computer.

If you suspect you're the victim of a scam, file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx), a partnership of the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance designed to track and match related online criminal complaints.

(Editing by Frances Kerry)

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