Beware of Haiti scams

Within minutes of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hitting the Caribbean nation on Jan. 12, phony Web sites, e-mails, phishing expeditions and other scams sprouted seeking donations — a feat that used to take at least hours, Lanford said.

“This is one of the bigger natural disaster scams we’ve seen,” said Lanford, who runs the 16-year-old scambusters.org Web site with her husband Jim in Boone, N.C.

Metro Atlantans, as a whole, have managed to sidestep scams in their efforts to give to Haiti-related charities, according to FBI and Better Business Bureau officials. Other parts of the country haven’t been so lucky. The FBI, alone, has logged more than 170 complaints nationwide related to Haiti donation scams.

“Across the [BBB] system nationwide several [scams] have sprung up,” said BBB spokesman Fred Elsberry. “A lot of them are online.”

Like the Facebook scam that alleged the social network site would match each dollar of donations pledged by Facebook followers. Millions of people took the bait, Elsberry said.

Scammers have always zeroed in on disasters. Hurricane Katrina spawned more than 4,600 web sites, most of which the FBI suspects were bogus.

Donors have contributed more than $560 million in Haiti donations to 40 U.S. nonprofits as of Jan. 29, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy web site. That’s more than was given in the 17 days following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the 2004 Asian tsunami, but slightly less than the donations raised in the same time period for Katrina victims in 2005.

An array of scams

The massive international relief effort that has rallied on behalf of Haiti seems to have led to a greater array of scams — and confusion about which charities are authentic.

Take, for example, the various “Haiti” texting campaigns. It is the first time texting has been used in a large-scale way to raise money in a disaster. Many people weren’t sure such campaigns were genuine, Elsberry said. They were, he said. Many donations were aimed at the Red Cross. But, he noted, don’t always expect that money to arrive quickly.

While some mobile carriers have expedited donations or pledged to, Elsberry said donors should not expect the money to be donated “until it’s gone through the billing cycle and you’ve paid your [cellphone] bill. And that could take 30 to 60 to 90 days. If your interest is getting the money quickly to Haiti, go directly to the charity’s Web site.”

Lanford said the Haiti relief efforts have spawned three categories of scams, the biggest of which are charity relief scams where people are cheated out of their donations via Web sites, e-mail or personal appeals.

Then there’s phishing and malware scams aimed at stealing people’s identities by sending them to phony Web sites that put destructive viruses or attachments on their computers. A common one involves pictures of Haiti or earthquake victims.

Finally, many scam artists are taking advantage of grieving families by promising that, for a fee, they will find their missing loved ones in the earthquake-ravaged country.

To donate safely

Here are some ways you can protect yourself and your donation:

● Never respond to e-mail requests for a donation.

● Always check to make sure a charity is legitimate. The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance’s Standards for Charity Accountability, charitynavigator.org and scambuster.org have links on their sites that can help you sort out the good ones from the bad.

● Don’t open attachments unless you’re sure who sent them. Many of the malware scams use pictures of the disaster area or victims to lure you in.

● Ask lots of questions. Ask for the name, phone number and address of the charity. Is the charity registered with any organization? If so, get the registration number. Inquire what percentage of your money will actually get to Haiti. You can also designate how your donation is used.

● Be careful when you click through to a link of web site for donations; it may be phishing. Check the URL to make sure it’s legitimate. Make sure the site is an “https” secure site; look for an image of a lock on the page indicating it is a secure payment site. Scam sites don’t have those.

● Never give out personal or financial information.

● Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the affected areas. Unless the charity already has staff there, it may be difficult to get new aid workers to quickly provide assistance. See if the charity’s Web site describes what they are doing to address immediate needs.

● Avoid cash donations, if possible. Pay by debit or credit card or write a check directly to the charity.

● Don’t yield to pressure. “We feel the need to give at this time, but Haiti is going to need assistance for a long time,” Elsberry said. “If you feel pressure from a charity, that’s a sign to back off.”

● If you suspect fraud, contact the 24-hour hot line set up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) at 1-866-720-5721 or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center known as IC3 at www.ic3.gov .

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