Scammers take advantage of Boston, Texas disasters

Ira Wilsker

Americans are a generous people. In times of disaster or crisis, countless Americans have always heeded an internal call to do good and contribute to those in need. The recent terrorism in Boston, which resulted in at least three dead from the bombings, as well as over 170 injured, many losing limbs, has encouraged Americans to open their hearts and wallets to help. Donations are also pouring in to help the family of the murdered MIT campus police officer and a critically wounded Boston Transit officer, allegedly at the hands of the two suspected bombers. Even the owner of the boat that turned out to be the final refuge of the surviving terrorist has received unsolicited donations from concerned citizens intending to replace his $55,000 boat, which was riddled with police bullets in the final shootout.

Just days after the Boston Marathon bombings, a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded, leading to more than a dozen deaths (including several volunteer firefighters), many injuries, and extensive property damage. As Texans always have done in a crisis situation, along with many other Americans, contributions have flooded relief organizations helping the victims of the explosion. Americans really are a generous people.

Inevitably, there are always a bunch of crooks who illicitly siphon off funds intended to help disaster victims, and following these two tragedies, these miscreants again crawled out of the woodwork. Among the first organizations to sound the alarm about these bogus charity schemes  was the Better Business Bureau, which as soon as Tuesday, April 16, the day after the Boston bombings, warned donors about the charity scams. In the April 16 press release from the BBB, it said, “At least one poorly conceived charity scam has already emerged in the wake of the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday, and more are likely. BBB Wise Giving Alliance (“Alliance”), the national charity monitoring arm of the Better Business Bureau, ... cautions donors about potential red flags concerning tragedy-related philanthropy.” H. Art Taylor, president and CEO of the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance warned, “Social media, in particular, makes it very easy to reach a lot of people quickly, when emotions are running high and people feel the need to take action, any action, to help.” Since that preliminary warning from the BBB, several other questionable websites, e-mail campaigns, Facebook and Twitter requests, and other bogus fundraising activities have appeared.

According to the BBB, some of the e-mail and social media charitable solicitations are actually a “phishing” scam, where the e-mail or social media alert appears to be from a legitimate and well known charitable organization, but instead links to a counterfeit but authentic looking website complete with an online donation form. In addition to credit card data, which can then be resold to other cyber crooks, some of these bogus websites collect other personal information. Some of these illicit sites might also load malware onto the unsuspecting donor’s computer. I would suggest that if a donor desires to make a contribution to one of the recognized national charities, first check out the charity on the BBB’s charity review website at www.bbb.org/charity-reviews/national, and then go directly to that charity’s website and make the donation directly. I do not recommend clicking on links sent in e-mails or posted in social networking pleas, as these can easily be forged, and result in the criminal diversion of the donation.

In a news alert published in Domain News, an industry publication, is a story headlined “Boston Marathon Blasts See Cybersquatters Exploit Tragedy.” Within hours of the bombings, well over 100 domain names were registered with some permutations of the Boston marathon bombing. Domain News says, “Within half an hour the domains BostonBombing.com, BostonBombing.net, BostonBombing.org, BostonBombing.us and BostonBombing.info were all registered according to Domainer Income and within an hour there were more than 125 domains registered relating to the blasts. While a few of these domains are possibly going to be used for genuine charitable or other efforts, the majority are destined to be used as scam-related websites.” Similar Twitter and Facebook accounts were also quickly created, some of which promoted donations to a variety of supposed charities. Some of these websites and social media pleas contained graphic news photos or edited images intended to tug at the heartstrings of generous people by displaying supposed photos of dead or badly injured victims, including the 8-year-old fatality. Donations were solicited in the names of these victims, but in most of these appeals, any donations go directly to a scammers account.

The devastating fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, just two days after the Boston Marathon bombings also brought out the scammers trying to deceive generous people into making financial donations to the crooks. Jeannette Kopko, a spokesperson for the BBB in Dallas, which covers the region where the fertilizer plant was located, warned, “It’s unfortunate that scammers prey on consumers’ sympathies after a tragedy like the West, Texas, explosion in order to swindle consumers. Scams could range from questionable charity appeals to phony websites, e-mails, social media accounts or messages, and even to home or business repair scams.” What is especially sad is the fact that those who had significant property damage could be doubly victimized; first by the explosion itself, and then by “home or business repair scams.”

Also, just like following the Boston bombings, Internet scammers started to plunder those wishing to help the folks in West, Texas. According to a report published in Anti Scam News, it was less than 12 hours after the shocking videos of the fertilizer plant blast appeared on the news that e-mail boxes started to receive the initial flood of spammed scams soliciting donations for the people of West, Texas. According to the report, “The first one arrived just after 8 a.m. today (April 16). Since then, I’ve received subsequent versions with slight variations in the subject line. A search of the link included in these e-mails shows it reported as a virus, with the same type of links also used for e-mails about the very recent tragedy at the Boston Marathon. ... This malware has been reported by a Kaspersky Lab expert, who explains that the initial link, which is disguised as a ‘news’ story, opens a YouTube video. After a 60 second delay, another link to an executable file is activated, which contains the virus.”

It is really sad that there are people who take unfair advantage of well intentioned and generous people who sincerely desire to help others in need. By being aware of the scams and threats posed by illicit charity and news Web sites, as well as spam e-mails, perhaps we can be better assured that our donations will reach the intended victims, and our personal information and computers will not be compromised.

 

Listen to Ira Wilsker’s weekly radio show on Mondays from 6-7 p.m. on KLVI 560AM.

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