Jan. 14, 2010 — -- There is now evidence of crooks capitalizing on the generosity of people seeking to help quake-stunned Haiti -- spam e-mails that lead people to think they're donating to the British Red Cross, among other credible sounding organizations.
Symantec Corp., the security software giant that tracks suspicious Internet activity, said it spotted its first Haiti earthquake spam Thursday morning, soon followed by two other spam e-mails.
The first suspicious e-mail Symantec spotted, with the subject line "Make Your Donations Now," claims it's from the British Red Cross Society, even using that group's legitimate physical address to add authenticity. The body of the e-mail, which has several spelling errors, asks for donations on behalf of Haiti, and says, "Please give what you can today to help thousands of people there in desperate need of humanitarian assistance."
The e-mail asks people to wire the money through a Western Union money transfer.
"Unfortunately, the donation is not going to the British Red Cross, but to whoever the scammer is," said Symantec group product manager John Harrison.
When asked about the e-mail, the British Red Cross said they never sent it.
"That's clearly fraudulent," said press officer Mark South. "We don't use Western Union money transfer to collect donations for the British Red Cross."
However, South said whoever put together the e-mail knew what they were doing.
"The address (listed in the e-mail) is our address, but it's not coming from us," he said. "It's an unfortunately well-put-together fraud."
Those interested in giving to the Red Cross' Haiti relief efforts should go to RedCross.org, South said.
Questionable E-mails About Haiti Earthquake Relief
Another e-mail claims to be from the Haiti Disaster Response Agency in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
"We would like to appeal to all well meaning people all over the world to come to the aid of the suffering people in Haiti," the message reads. "We have come together from all over the world to offer them prayers and what ever (sic) assistance we can provide." The e-mail asks would-be donors to provide information about how much money they'd be willing to give.
Symantec says the e-mail actually originated from a Canadian university Web mail server. The e-mail address used to send the message doesn't match the address where the donor is expected to send information. Harrison says that e-mail address is from a domain that hosts a car-racing Web site.
Symantec has uncovered a third spam e-mail, where the sender claims to be partnered with UNICEF, the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders. The author says his charity is based in the Philippines and refers to Haiti as "my country." However, Symantec says this e-mail originated in Slovakia. The sender created an e-mail address that is intended to look like it comes from a legitimate charity. The message is filled with grammatical mistakes, and asks for money transfers to be sent via Western Union.
"HELP THE CHILDREN IN HAITI .. DONATE TODAY," the subject line reads. The message continues, "I cannot stress enough what a human disaster this is, and idle hands will only make this tragedy worse."
Harrison says that in times of tragedy, spammers are quick to start exploiting the public's desire to help, and spam emails land in inboxes next to legitimate requests for charitable support.
Web Sites Created After Haiti Earthquake
In the first 36 hours after the tragedy, ABC News found that 64 new Web site URLs that seem connected to Haiti Earthquake relief had been registered. ABC News has no idea whether or not any of the following web sites are legitimate or illegitimate, but the list is below:
How to Give Without Being Taken
Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, warns those who want to help to watch out for Internet scammers. As in past disasters, they will try to play on the emotions of the public by sending out what appear to be personal e-mail appeals from individuals in Haiti. The messages may ask for the recipient's "personal" help or direct would-be donors to a Web site that is really just a front for a phony charity.
An FBI official told ABC News that less than 24 hours after the Haiti earthquake the FBI had already received a handful of complaints about Web sites that have been set up that could be a fraudulent. The FBI issued a statement Wednesday urging Internet users to be careful about giving online.
To protect yourself, Borochoff advises givers to target groups with strong track records in the area. They should donate to aid organizations that know Haiti, understand the needs of Haitians, and have well-organized distribution systems for actually delivering that aid.
While modern technology makes it easy to give "impulse" donations – via the Internet, cell phones and other methods -- donors may actually want to wait and donate later, said Borochoff. Better relief channels will have been set up and aid groups will still need the help, since much of the immediate impulse giving will have evaporated.