Wyclef Jean or Spammer? E-Mail Scammers Pose as Yele Haiti

Scammers send fake e-mails from Yele Haiti to swindle earthquake relief donors.

Jan. 26, 2010 — -- Thousands of people have received e-mails from the musician Wyclef Jean, asking for donations to the earthquake victims in Haiti.

But the e-mail is a fraud, say charity organizations. The message was not sent by Jean, but by schemers seeking to siphon money meant for earthquake relief.

"HELP THE CHILDREN IN HAITI .. DONATE TODAY," the subject line reads. Filled with grammatical errors, the message continues, "?My (sic) name is Wyclef Jean the chief coordinator of Yele Haiti a voluntary organisation i did set up to help the children faced with the disasterous earthquake in my Country."

To add authenticity, the sender created an e-mail address that that looks like Jean's. Recipients of the bogus e-mail see "From: Wyclef Jean" at the top of the message. At the bottom, Jean's name is followed by the legitimate URL, or Internet address, for his foundation, Yele Haiti.

Like Jean, 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 asks for money transfers to be sent via Western Union.

"I cannot stress enough what a human disaster this is, and idle hands will only make this tragedy," the message says.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, spotted several red flags in the e-mail, like the obvious grammatical errors and method of donation.

"The legitimate charities aren't asking to use money transfers when it's so easy to use a credit card or simply send a check," said Borochoff.


Symantec Corp., the security software giant that tracks suspicious Internet activity, said this fraudulent e-mail originated in Slovakia. It first noticed this particular spam message a short time after the earthquake shook Haiti Jan. 12.

Jean's publicist, Brielle Douglass, said she was unaware of the scam until contacted by ABC News. She called it "very alarming" and said "(Jean) would want to address that."

Spammers Prey in Tragic Times

In times of tragedy, spammers are quick to start exploiting the public's desire to help and spam e-mails land in inboxes next to legitimate requests for charitable support, said Symantec group product manager John Harrison. Since the earthquake shook Haiti, Symantec has uncovered a half dozen suspicious e-mails appealing for relief donations.

"People are acting very impulsively. These e-mails look very promising and they want to help right away," said Borochoff. "But bottom line, you know, people should never respond to unsolicited e-mails or spam and should try to give to charities with a good track record."

Borochoff recommends visiting the American Institute of Philanthropy's Web site, CharityWatch.org, which rates individual charities. Their "giving alert" grades groups involved in the Haiti earthquake relief efforts. Its top-rated charities spend at least 75 percent of people's donations on program services.

The site gives CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Operation USA and the Salvation Army an A. The American Red Cross and Mercy Corps receive grades of A-minus.

"It's always better for people to take some time and think about where they're donating their money, instead of quickly giving after reading a well-worded e-mail," said Borochoff.