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Scammers Solicit ‘Donations’ for Haitian Relief

SAN FRANCISCO - Scammers have descended on the Internet in an all-out effort to dupe people into sending them money intended for victims - this time, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

Amid warnings from the FBI and computer-security companies, a wave of dodgy e-mails and websites soliciting charitable donations has popped up.

Suspicious links to websites, for example, are up 400 percent in the past few days, says computer-security firm Proofpoint.

"People want to jump in and help others, and scammers take advantage of that," says Andy Hayter, anti-malware program manager at ICSA Labs.

A common swindle is e-mail that purports to come from the British Red Cross, seeking at least 250 British pounds. The e-mail includes the address of the Red Cross in London and implores that donations be wired there via Western Union. It also asks donors to reply in e-mail with details of their transaction.

But the e-mail contact for the British Red Cross is wrong, and the organization does not collect donations using Western Union, says Kevin Haley, director of Symantec Security Response.

Cybercrooks are also manipulating online searches so that results for terms such as "Haiti relief fund" and "Haiti donations" direct people to phishing sites or pages laden with malware, Haley says.

At the same time, computer-security firm F-Secure says hackers have fashioned fake donation sites that download viruses to the PCs of would-be-donors.

The FBI cautions consumers to "make contributions directly to known organizations rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf."

E-mail security firm Goodmail Systems, meanwhile, is part of an industrywide initiative to ensure the e-mail of legitimate organizations, such as the Red Cross, isn't blocked inadvertently when security vendors filter bogus e-mail.

Online scams and disasters are not new. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered the Gulf Coast, so many misleading websites sprouted that the FBI joined the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and others in forming the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force.

"The online Katrina scams seemed more focused on victimizing English-speaking users," says Alfred Huger, vice president of engineering at Immunet. "The Haitian disaster is attracting much broader global coverage, and we think it will also attract a larger multilingual scam effort."

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