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Caution: Fake Charities Collecting Money and Information

If disasters such as the South Asia tsunami bring out the best in some people -- and they do -- the sad fact is that these occurrences also bring out the worst in others. Shortly after the tsunami hit, disaster relief scams began appearing in the form of phone appeals and Internet offerings.

As VOA's George Dwyer reports, authorities have been gaining experience in coping with these illegal schemes, and they have some important advice for those who are genuinely interested in helping.

Authorities at the U.S. Council of Better Business Bureaus say that criminals posing as tsunami victims, or relatives of victims, have grown increasingly sophisticated in their efforts to lure potential donors into fraudulent Internet transactions.

"We're seeing a surge in Internet appeals, and we are warning donors that they should be on the look-out for unsolicited e-mails,” says Art Taylor, President and CEO at the Council’s Wise Giving Alliance. “These are especially catching our attention because generally the relief organizations that are on the ground, that have been doing this for a while, aren't soliciting in that fashion."

Mr. Taylor identified a variety of common scams, including those in which phony Websites pose as legitimate tsunami relief organizations, request charitable donations, then steal identity data and financial information. Others embed viruses in photos or other attachments related to the disaster.

"So if you are getting an unsolicited e-mail appeal you probably should be very cautious of even opening it because some of them contain viruses, others simply contain requests to give to some unknown or unidentified organization.” Mr. Taylor continued, “In the worst case some of these will take you to a Website that seems like an organization you know but in fact goes to some unknown unidentified group who are probably just taking your money."

Similar scams occurred after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and have recurred following every major natural disaster since then.

Mr. Taylor says that to avoid getting scammed, it is a good idea to support only established disaster relief agencies. "Relief organizations that have been on the ground, that have experience, are organizations that we should be supporting at this time, because it's very difficult for a new organization to come along and deliver support to victims of this particular disaster."