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Japan and New Zealand: Epicenters of Fraud

by Tee Morris on March 17th, 2011

Yesterday, ID Guardian went live with a heartbreaking column from ITC’s Neal O’Farrell on the opportunists that surface during times of disaster, tragedy, and adversity. With permission, we are syndicating it here, encouraging you all to give to your charity of choice, so long as you know and trust the charity in question.

Be safe, and give so that you can help these countries in need.

With every tragedy comes opportunity. The opportunity to learn, to rebuild, to do things better, and to prove that people around the world will rush to the help of their fellow man. Between the 6.3-magnitude Christchurch Earthquake on February 22 and the 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan on March 11, stories of hope emerge. From Christchurch came eyewitness accounts of individuals sporting superhuman strength in order to reach buried survivors. Japan, still reeling from their own geological events, is now receiving assistance from 91 countries and regions and six international organizations; including teams from the United States, South Korea, Australia, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, China, Hungary, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. (Japan’s own search and rescue team was still in New Zealand, assisting with recovery efforts from the recent Christchurch earthquake, when Japan’s earthquake and tsunami struck.)

But these dark events also bring with them another kind of opportunity. Hidden amongst that crowd of good citizens are heartless opportunists who see another’s tragedy as their chance for a quick buck.

Whenever there are natural catastrophes like these, emails and websites from bogus charities quickly appear offering links to graphic videos or photos of the event and calling for donations. Instead, these links lead to malicious web sites looking to steal your personally identifiable information or install software designed to track your online activity and transactions. Scams like this cropped up during the Christchurch disaster, and are now quickly emerging within days of the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

According to the BBB, any criminal can create a fake charity website in a matter of hours, and are often just carbon copies of the real charity sites. The goal of these illegitimate websites is to solicit donations, steal personal information, and install malware on the giver’s computer.  The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has a list of scams including charity based scams in their Top Five Identity Theft Scams of 2010.

A common tactic by scammers is the offer of a sensational video that races like a virus through web sites and social networks. As predicted, a variety of these scams are now making the rounds on Facebook, quickly taking advantage of the events in Japan. The scammers are inviting users to watch the footage and spread the message and link to their friends. But anyone falling for the scam instead finds themselves redirected to paid surveys and quizzes, all with the intent to either gain personal information or simply generate click-based advertising revenue.

It never ceases to amaze me that there are so many heartless people in the world who only see human tragedy and suffering as a way to make a quick buck. However, there is a powerful lesson to be learned: These scammers only devote so much time to these scams because they work. They know that enough people will fall for whatever trick they’re peddling in order to make it financially worth their while.

You can still make a difference though without exposing yourself or your friends to these scams. Before you click on that “Donate” button, take just a few more seconds to consider the following:

  • Is the website you’re making your donation through the real thing or just a fake lookalike? The best way to ensure you’re on the correct website is to carefully type in the URL or domain name yourself, and not rely on email or Facebook links.
  • Before making a donation, remember to review any charity with BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance to verify that a charity meets the BBB’s 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.
  • Give only to charities you know and trust, and preferably direct through their website rather than in response to a phone call or mail solicitation.

And concerning the social networking video scams…

  • Control your curiosity, especially around major news stories and tragic events. Get your news from reliable sources and don’t overindulge.
  • Be very careful about clicking on any links relating to these stories that come through Facebook or Twitter.
  • Watch out for the warning signs, especially language like “Amazing, you’ve got to see this video…” etc., and any message that asks you to share with your friends or download or install something in order to view.

Scammers should never stop you from being human and wanting to help your fellow man. Don’t let them.

Be careful. Be vigilant. Be a hero.