As disasters spread, so do online scammers

Jan bultmann
By Jan Bultmann

The outpouring of generosity from people all over the world following the earthquake in Japan has been accompanied by a profusion of donation scams.

These scams no longer prey on the simply gullible but have moved to less obvious ruses such as malicious websites that use clickjacking and drive-by attacks.

Natural disasters bring out extremes of human behavior. Workers at the devastated Japanese nuclear power plants place themselves in harm’s way trying to protect other people from explosions and radiation poisoning. Military and social services staffers work days without sleep under horrifying conditions.

And in response, strangers around the world ask how they can help, what they can do, what they can send. Unfortunately, predators also respond, seeking to exploit the suffering and generosity of others for personal gain.

Online donation scams are not new, but they became really evident in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Most of those scams were e-mail–based phishing, also known as 419 scams. The least sophisticated claimed to be from victims; they explained complicated and peculiar circumstances leading them to write e-mails asking individuals for money. More advanced phishing scams imitated the look and feel of reputable charities’ Web presences.

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