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SnakebyteXX
01-06-2005, 07:07 AM
Law enforcement issue warnings of tsunami charity scams

By KEN THOMAS Associated Press Writer

MIAMI With private donations pouring into charities, law enforcement officials say scam artists claiming to represent tsunami relief organizations are using e-mails and telephone calls to attempt to steal donations and swipe donors' identities.

The FBI, several states and consumer watchdog agencies have issued warnings in recent days, noting that an outpouring of generosity for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami has opened the door for con artists who want to prey upon American philanthropy.

"We don't want someone who is charitable and is supportive of the victims over there to become a victim of identity theft," said Bob Breeden, who heads the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's computer crimes center.

The FBI said Wednesday one fraudulent relief Web site had a Trojan virus that could infect computers if people access it. The bureau has also received reports of unsolicited e-mails asking for a fee to help people find loved ones who were in Asia when the tsunami struck.

FDLE officials alerted residents Tuesday after the agency learned of an e-mail purportedly sent by a British group called "The Foundation for Victims of Flood and Earthquake" and another requesting aid to the "Tsunamis Disaster Help Funds."

"With sympathy and heavy laden hearts, we hereby appeal to your sense of generosity to assist by donating any amount you can afford," the latter group wrote in an e-mail. Florida officials said the e-mails appeared to be suspicious and patterned after fraudulent appeals for donations in the past.

In Connecticut, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Wednesday his office is investigating up to 10 potentially fraudulent schemes claiming to be tsunami relief efforts, including the sale of relief bracelets.

"We're warning people they should be wary about the bracelet sales," Blumenthal said. "The whole bracelet area is fraught with peril."

Breeden said the agency had not received any complaints but wanted to be "ahead of the curve" on potential scams after learning that a British man had pleaded guilty to sending phony e-mails telling people that their missing loved ones had died in the tsunamis.

Florida officials said the solicitations could be misrepresenting their intentions seeking donations and be "phishing scams." Under these schemes, e-mails are used to trick recipients into providing personal information such as credit card and Social Security numbers, addresses and other information that could put them at risk of identity fraud.

In addition to Florida and Connecticut, similar warnings have been issued in Alabama, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington state. The Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau have also weighed in with tips on how to properly assess charities before making a donation.

"If you run a Google search on tsunami and contribute, you'll come up with over 60,000 sites," said North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. "Many of them are brand new sites, and they're not well established. People need to be careful."

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said Wednesday her state's residents "are being generous beyond anyone's expectations and we want to be sure their generosity has positive results for the victims rather than lining the pockets of con artists."

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office encouraged people to donate directly to charities instead of dealing with telemarketers who keep a large portion of the proceeds they raise.

"We're asking people to donate only to charities they know and trust, rather than something set up in a piecemeal fashion," said Spitzer spokesman Paul Larrabee. "We're encouraging informed donation."

Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, said the vast majority of the fund-raising efforts are being conducted honestly but "any charitable circumstances that involves a highly emotional situation such as this one will attract questionable solicitors in some areas to seek to take advantage of American generosity."

State officials and watchdog groups offer the following advice for potential donors:

_ Contact the Better Business Bureau, the White House's USA Freedom Corps, an office that encourages volunteering, or the state office that tracks charities to verify the organization you intend to make a donation.

_ Do not give out personal or financial information such as Social Security, credit card and bank account numbers to anyone soliciting a donation.

_ Do not give cash and ask for a receipt showing the amount of the contribution and showing it is tax-deductible.

_ Ask what percentage of your donation will support the cause described in the appeal.

_ Go directly to Web sites of recognized charities instead of following links sent in unsolicited e-mails, which could be fraudulent.

_ Be wary of e-mails that claim to show pictures of disaster areas in attached files; they may contain viruses.

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On the Net:

BBB Wise Giving Alliance: http://www.give.org/

USA Freedom Corps: http://www.usafreedomcorps.gov/

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