Growing Number of Internet Scams Mar Relief Efforts

The Internet, like American society itself, is a virtual reflection of the best and worst that humanity has to offer.

Most people, in response to Tuesday’s attacks of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, reflected the best that we have to offer, with a vast outpouring of grief and vows of support.

Thursday, across the country, millions are participating in relief activities: people are taking reservations to give blood at the local Red Cross, radio stations are taking “pay-for-play” donations for support efforts, and people are coming together as a nation to provide emotional support for the families with loved ones still unaccounted for.

But there’s another side to the story, the story of those that are looking to profit from the sorrow caused. In the real world, you have gas station owners who briefly engaged in price gouging at the tanks, before state and federal authorities jumped in to put a stop to the practice.

On the Internet, there’s no such watchdog protecting well-meaning people from profiteers asking for donations in the name of organizations like the Red Cross and the United Way.

The SpamCon Foundation and the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), two non-profit organizations formed protect email as a legitimate form of communications, released an advisory warning email readers to be wary of solicitations that ask for “Express Relief Funds” or “Victims Survivor Funds.”

In many cases, SpamCon Executive Director Tom Geller said, a link that seems to be sending you to the Red Cross Web site could in fact redirecting you to a different site entirely.

From there, these cleverly disguised Web sites will take your credit card information or display a mailing address to send in cash or checks. After that, it’s too late to get the money back.

Geller and the CAUCE have a number of tips to help consumers determine whether an email is safe or not. Like an other type of advertisement, he said, spam comes in all shapes and sizes.

“I myself have only seen a couple of the emails,” Geller said. “That’s the way spam works, some people won’t get any, while another will get 20 of them in a day. The best thing people can remember is that if somebody you know sends you the email, it’s likely legitimate. If you get it from somebody you don’t know, more than likely its not legitimate.

People should use common sense, he said, in situations like this. Many people already know where the local Red Cross and the United Way are in their town, donations can always be sent there if a person is concerned about sending the money to destinations unknown.

Here are some other tips for protecting your donation efforts:

  • Virtually no bona-fide relief agencies request funds by sending email to people who are already involved in that agency.
  • If you click on a link to donate, examine the URL (the www address) shown in your browser. It it doesn’t match the text of the link you clicked in the email, it’s probably fraudulent.
  • Verify the solicitor’s identity through another medium (like the telephone) before giving money. Spammers frequently forge the identity and style of well-known entities to gain credibility.

Spam, or unsolicited commercial email (UCE) is a growing problem that has many people rightfully wary of placing their trust in email. Only one hour after the WTC and Pentagon disasters, spam houses (companies that provide bulk email services) were sending out millions of emails to millions of people around the world.

Some were well-meaning efforts, like the spam by faithandvalues.com, a faith-based organization looking to provide solace to bereaved Americans.

Most were in bad taste. Pornography sites seemed to send the majority of spam with claims like “No terrorists here! Join our porn site, turn off the TV, quit watching the crap happening in the states and join our free site.” The disasters also provided a reason for hate groups to come out and proclaim their hatred against the likely foreigners responsible for the attack, calling for violence against Middle Easterners.

According to one company targeted as a scam artist, spam like that is the reason why many have troubles with any email that comes from an unfamiliar source these days.

Randy Moser, vice president of marketing at the Sterling Time Company, a pre-paid phone card company, said his company is only doing what any American wants to do right now help out. The company, which has sent out millions of UCEs, has been blasted by anti-spam organizations around the world for its commemorative pre-paid phone card offer.

The emails, which started finding their way into email boxes yesterday, promise that for the purchase of a $5, $10 and $20 pre-paid phone card, all profits, or a minimum of 10 percent of the gross proceeds from sales, will be given to the Red Cross.

“We are trying to do something positive here like any other American and we’ve been in contact with the Red Cross with the idea since we first thought of the idea,” Moser said. “There are always going to be detractors to what we do, but I assure you our intentions are legitimate. In all honesty, we will get some publicity out of this, and maybe we should for the effort we’re making, but it was never the primary consideration.”

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