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American Red Cross warns of online donation scams

Network World Fusion

By Sharon Gaudin

(IDG) -- The American Red Cross and e-mail advocacy groups Thursday warned of online scams in the guise of soliciting donations for victims of this week's terrorist attacks.

The scam is taking the form of spam, or unsolicited bulk e-mail, and postings in online forums, asking for donations either in the name of the victims or specifically for the American Red Cross. Margie Arbon, manager of market and business development for Mail-Abuse Prevention Systems, an organization that fights spam, says it started seeing the fraudulent e-mail messages Wednesday, the day after the terrorist attacks, but that the number of them has been picking up over the day Thursday.

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"It's hitting us big-time today," says Phil Zepeda, director of online media at the Red Cross. "People are looking to use this as an opportunity to profit. It's almost beyond comprehension. It's a further tragedy beyond what has already happened."

The fraudulent e-mail messages are taking many different forms. Some messages claim to be part of a relief fund or survivor funds, according to John Mozena, a member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, or CAUCE. Some messages claim to link to the Red Cross Web site but actually link to an unrelated site.

Mitch Hibbs, a spokesman for the American Red Cross' Disaster Operations Center, says the scam isn't only cheating people out of their money, it's taking needed funds away from relief efforts.

"They are denying people the relief they need," says Hibbs. "In effect, [the scammers] are helping the perpetrators of this catastrophe to accomplish their desires by causing more undue suffering. I don't comprehend the motivation behind doing something like that."

And the scam may be working. Because people are so desperate to lend aid to victims of the terrorist attack, they are setting aside their cynicism when it comes to these solicitations.

"I think people are extra-susceptible because everybody wants to help," says Arbon. "I'm appalled. This has crossed into absolutely preying on people when they're the most vulnerable. How anybody could take advantage of a disaster like this for their own gain is just beyond me."

A spokeswoman for the FBI says it investigates any complaint of fraud that it receives, but she would not confirm nor deny if they are looking into this issue.

"This e-mail I'm looking at now says 'Red Cross, click here', and unless you look at the code and see where it's going, you might believe it's taking you to the Red Cross site," says Arbon. "There's no way to tell where the money actually is going."

The Red Cross' Hibbs says there are a few businesses that have specific and official business ties with the Red Cross, helping them to raise money. He notes that AOL, Amazon.com and Yahoo! are helping to collect donations for the Red Cross. (AOL Time Warner is the parent company of CNN.com.)

Hibbs also says the Red Cross is considering legal action against those perpetrating the scams.

Here are a few suggestions from MAPS and CAUCE to make sure that donations actually are going to legitimate relief funds:

  • Go directly to the Web site of the organization you want to donate to. The Red Cross' Web site is www.redcross.org.
  • If you don't know the organization or the person who solicited you, stay away from it.
  • Keep in mind that, generally, no legitimate relief organization solicits for donations through bulk e-mail.
  • If you do click on any link to make a donation, examine the URL shown in the browser to make sure you are where you think you are.




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