Scammers see Haitian earthquake as opportunity to profit

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The earthquake Tuesday (Jan. 12) in Haiti caused massive destruction with widespread loss of life and property. The stories and pictures over the next few days and weeks will undoubtedly trigger the urge in people to make contributions to help.

The 7.0 earthquake Tuesday (Jan. 12) in Haiti caused massive destruction with widespread loss of life and property.

“Unfortunately, these events also bring out the con artists and scammers who are more interested in making money for themselves rather than contributing to the rescue and restoration efforts,” said Eugene H. Spafford, professor and executive director of CERIAS (Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security) at Purdue University.

Researchers at CERIAS know that criminals will take advantage of the most tragic of circumstances and exploit the sense of urgency people have to “do something” in order to overcome their normal caution.

“Our past research showed that the same people who normally commit fraud with get-rich-quick e-mails adjust their scams – within a matter of hours – to act as victims of these tragedies,” said Howard Sypher, a professor with CERIAS and head of the Department of Communication. “Web sites are undoubtedly already constructed to impersonate major charities and thus trick the unwary.”

Spafford cautions that fraudulent calls for aid could come in many forms.

“Be alert for fraudulent but sincere-sounding appeals for aid from Haitian victims, from what appear to be charities, or from government or U.N. officials,” he advises. “These solicitations may be sent as e-mail to you or a group to which you belong, as postings or messages on a social newsgroup such as Facebook or Twitter, as a phone call from someone soliciting donations, or as a Web site to which you are directed or that pops up when visiting a site.”

Both professors emphasized that, based on their past experiences, some of these fraudulent appeals will sound convincing, and the associated Web pages will appear official and legitimate.

Here are some tips from the experts at CERIAS on how to avoid being scammed, now and at other times:

  • Do not enter any information at a Web page that pops up unexpectedly when you visit some other site.
  • Never click on a Web site address (URL) in e-mail sent to you; it may look official, but most will be pointers to fraud or attack sites.
  • Don’t assume that every Web address returned by a search engine, such as Google or Bing, is a legitimate organization.
  • Do not respond to e-mail requesting donations or making a special offer (such as asking you to hold their assets while Haiti rebuilds).
  • Do not reveal any personal or financial information during a phone call you did not dial yourself.
  • If a friend forwards a URL, phone number or e-mail, don’t trust it until you check its validity. Your friend may have been scammed first.

Find Legitimate Charities

Check the Web sites of charities to which you already contribute or already know are legitimate for information on what kind of donations are being accepted and how to go about contributing. The United Way of Metropolitan Chicago has a blog post with information on how to donate to their Worldwide Disaster Relief fund which will benefit the rescue and recovery efforts in Haiti.

If you do not already have a relationship with a charitable organization, you can check CNN’s list of real charities:

“Use your phone book to find the information of a nearby chapter of the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army,” Spafford said. “Call or visit them and ask how you can contribute to Haitian disaster relief. Even small donations help and will be gratefully received – by real charities, not crooks.”

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