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Officials Warn of Bogus Internet Appeals for Hurricane Donations

There has been a vast outpouring of help for the victims of hurricane Katrina from Americans and from other countries. Private contributors have donated millions of dollars. But the hurricane has also provided an opportunity for scam artists.

Even before Hurricane Katrina hit land, scammers were trying to profit from the misfortune of others. They registered dozens of websites with "Katrina" in the name.

Dan Hubbard works for Websense, an Internet security firm. "Within two days after the hurricane hit, they actually put their content up and sent e-mails out to millions of people."

The e-mails looked like legitimate pleas from volunteer operations like the American Red Cross. One e-mail includes the graphics and typeface that the real Red Cross uses along with the real Red Cross's standard credit card form. It even uses the Red Cross's security logo.

But Dan Hubbard says it is a fake. "They're making you believe this is a secured site and that it has been verified when indeed, obviously, it has not." Mr. Hubbard says the site was traced to scammers in Brazil. "What happens, when you click on "donate," the information that you've entered actually gets sent to the third party, and then what happens is you get re-directed to the real Red Cross web site, which even makes it more real."

The real Red Cross has received millions of dollars in donations from its legitimate web site. But other fake donation sites have been traced to Korea, China and the U.S.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been called in. Red Cross attorney Mary O'Connell says, "It's outrageous what they are doing to the American citizens who are giving their hard-earned money to help people who desperately need their help. So, there is no question in my mind, that these are the lowest of the low."

Internet experts and law enforcement officials say there are more fake sites now than for past disasters. The FBI says it is working internationally with law enforcement organizations.

Domestically, two Americans have been charged in connection with fraud. Those who want to help the hurricane's victims are advised not to respond to e-mail requests for donations and to make sure any charity is legitimate before contributing.