Con artists prey on those who want to help

Internet schemes collect ID data, spread viruses

Katrina's Wake

September 08, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Even as millions of Americans rally to make donations to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Internet is brimming with schemes, come-ons and opportunistic pandering related to the relief effort in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. And the schemes are more varied and more numerous than in past disasters, according to law enforcement officials and watchdog groups.

Florida's attorney general has already filed a lawsuit alleging fraud against a man who mounted one of the earliest networks of Web sites - katrinahelp.com, katrinadonations.com and others - that purported to collect donations for victims of the storm.

In Missouri, a much wider constellation of Internet sites - with such names as parishdonations.com and katrinafamilies.com - displays pictures of the flood-ravaged South and drives traffic to a single site, InternetDonations.org, a nonprofit entity that apparently has links to anti-Semitic groups.

Registrant sued

The registrant of those Web sites was sued by the state of Missouri yesterday for violating state fundraising law and for "omitting the material fact that the ultimate company behind the defendants' Web sites supports white supremacy."

Late yesterday afternoon, the FBI put the number of Web sites claiming to deal in Katrina information and relief - some legitimate, others not - at "2,300 and rising." Dozens of suspicious sites claiming links to legitimate charities are being investigated by state and federal authorities. Also under investigation are e-mail spam campaigns using the hurricane as a hook to lure victims to give up credit card numbers to thieves, as well as phony hurricane news sites and e-mail "updates" that carry malicious code designed to hijack a victim's computer.

"The numbers are still going up," said Dan Larkin, the chief of the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center in West Virginia. Larkin said the amount of suspicious disaster-related Web activity is higher than was seen online after last year's tsunami in Southeast Asia.

Fast fraud

The earliest online schemes began to appear within hours of Katrina's passing.

"It was so fast it was amazing," said Audri Lanford, co-director of ScamBusters.org, an Internet clearinghouse for information on various forms of online fraud. "The most interesting thing is the scope. We do get a very good feel for the quantity of scams that are out there, and there's no question that this is huge compared to the tsunami."

By the end of last week, Landford's group had logged dozens of Katrina-related schemes. The frauds ranged from opportunistic marketing (one spam message offered updates on the post-hurricane situation, with a link that led to a site peddling Viagra) to messages purporting to be from victims or families of victims.

"This letter is in request for any help that you can give," reads one crude message that was widely distributed online. "My brother and his family have lost everything they have and come to live with me while they looks for a new job."

Several anti-virus software companies have warned of e-mail "hurricane news updates" that lure users to Web sites capable of infecting computers with a virus that allows hackers to gain control of their machines. And the Internet is seeded with numerous e-mail phishing messages that purport to be from real relief agencies, taking recipients to what appear to be legitimate Web sites, where credit card information is collected from people who think they are donating to the cause.

On Sunday, the Internet security company Websense issued an alert on a phishing campaign that lured users to a Web site that originated in Brazil and was designed to look like a page operated by the Red Cross.

Users who submitted their credit card numbers, expiration dates and PIN numbers via the Web form were then directed to the legitimate Red Cross Web site, making the ruse difficult to detect. The security company Sophos warned of a similar phishing campaign Monday.

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