FBI tackling rising number of Haiti relief scamsFederal and state authorities have issued alerts about possible fraud
By Peter Eisler
WASHINGTON — Federal law enforcement officials have received more than 170 complaints about fundraising scams tied to Haitian earthquake relief, and they're bracing for more online cons using Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites.
Scams are growing more diverse, and the FBI has a special team of computer analysts, fraud investigators and white-collar crime experts reviewing complaints, says David Nanz, chief of the FBI's economic crimes unit.
"We're seeing a lot of computer-based fraud -- unsolicited e-mails, bogus websites," Nanz adds, plus "traditional stuff (in which) people are just raising money on the street fraudulently."
The FBI and at least five state attorneys general have issued alerts on Haiti relief scams.
A hotline at the Justice Department's National Center for Disaster Fraud has received more than 100 complaints, and dozens more have come via the Internet, department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney says. The complaint volume is lower than after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 but on par with other foreign disasters, Sweeney says.
These days, people can be drawn into scams just by typing "Haiti donations" into Google, says Johannes Ullrich, chief research officer for the SANS Institute, an organization that does computer security research.
One site that pops up in response to that search greets visitors with an ominous message: "Warning!!! Your computer contains various signs of viruses..." The user then is prompted to buy virus-removal software.
It's a con to sell bogus software that could be designed to steal personal data, Ullrich says. And it highlights the risks facing Americans eager to support earthquake relief. Among them:
*In-person scams. These range from door-to-door solicitations for fake charities to more esoteric cons. On Jan. 22, for example, federal prosecutors charged a Michigan man with posing as an FBI agent to collect money "to help children in Haiti."
*E-mail, texting scams. These include bogus e-mail solicitations from people claiming to be surviving victims or officials, Nanz says, or texting scams in which people are asked to follow up with a phone call and provide personal information.
*Social networking scams. In one case, Nanz says, a person's Facebook account was hacked and all his contacts got messages to donate to a bogus charity. The risk with networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, is that fraudulent solicitations "get passed around and passed around," says Sandra Miniutti, a vice president of Charity Navigator, which vets non-profits.
*Suspect charities. Fraudulent websites are soliciting money for non-existent charities, Nanz says, including one posing as a British affiliate of the American Red Cross. In other cases, charities that have been criticized for misspending donor dollars are using the Haiti disaster to attract new money.
Charity Navigator and the American Institure of Philanthropy (charitywatch.org), another group that rates non-profits, have identified seven poor-performing charities that are soliciting money for Haiti relief.
"Choose the charity you want to (support) before you're asked," says Laurie Styron, an analyst for charitywatch.org.
"If you give in response to someone pressuring you ... you don't have time to check out the group. Don't feel guilty about saying, 'No,' " Styron says.
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