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Tsunami Prompts Online Outpouring

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2005; 10:08 AM

The Internet performed at the top of its game since the Indian Ocean tsunami struck last week, prompting unprecedented amounts of giving and kindness from people around the world. But even as it brings the immediacy of the disaster home to readers around the world, it also is providing opportunities for cons and questionable information.

The cruelest case is that of Christopher Pierson, 37, who pleaded guilty to sending more than 30 e-mails to friends and relatives telling them that their loved ones were confirmed dead after the tsunami hit on Dec. 26, Reuters reported. "Pierson is accused of posing as a British official from the 'Foreign Office Bureau' in Thailand in his emails. All the messages came from one bogus email address, ukgovfoffice@aol.com." The friends and family had posted details on the missing tourists at the Sky News Web site. "Sky News said it was 'disgusted' that its Web site had been abused and contacted police as soon as it found out," Reuters said.

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Reuters also quoted UK police as saying that "The British government would not use e-mail to convey news of the death of a loved one. Anyone receiving such an e-mail should treat it with utmost caution."
Reuters: Man pleads guilty over hoax emails

Such a warning becomes all the more meaningful in light of an article from the Wall Street Journal that describes a German tourist's quest to find her missing boyfriend of 20 years after a gigantic wave washed over them in Khao Lak, Thailand:

"Armed with little more than a cryptic tip on the Internet saying her boyfriend of 20 years was alive, Martina Wild wandered into a hospital ward here and peeled back a curtain to reveal a European man in bed, heavily bandaged and covered in scabs. It wasn't her beloved Uwe Bergmann. But the man was awake and spoke German, so she held up a picture of her boyfriend and said: 'I lost my man in Khao Lak, have you seen him?'" the Journal wrote. "While waiting for a patient list from a nurse at a hospital, Ms. Wild delicately massages a healing wound on her finger, and then said she was afraid the Internet posting might be 'bad information.' She didn't have any other leads to go on, but wasn't thinking about the idea of having to return to Germany alone. She says she doesn't want to discuss how police in Germany have visited their apartment, searching for Mr. Bergmann's DNA. 'I don't think about that, OK?' she says. 'It doesn't matter how injured he is. He is living.'"
The Wall Street Journal: For German Survivor, Search for Loved One Prolongs Nightmare (Subscription required)

Opportunists also abound, and not just for people looking for a good post-tsunami hotel deal. The New York Post wrote about Canadian college student Josh Kaplan, who tried to sell off the domain name "tsunamirelief.com." Kaplan received the domain name as a donation from 38-year-old freelance writer Michelle Tirado of Southbury, Conn., after claiming that he represented the non-profit firm "Tsunami Relief International," the Post reported.

"Tirado admits she registered the name tsunamirelief.com with the idea of turning a profit herself -- until the death toll began to climb. But even before she had a change of heart, her asking price was only $99," the Post wrote. "Tirado transferred the domain name to [Kaplan], but instead of seeing him solicit funds with the site, she was shocked that he put it up for sale on eBay -- with a starting bid of a staggering $50,000. Kaplan, 20, said he's studying design and lives at home with his parents. He claims he was planning to donate the proceeds to charity, but admitted he didn't share with Tirado his plans to sell the site."

The Post reported that Kaplan pulled the auction once the paper contacted him. The paper also reminded readers of what should be standard operating procedure when donating money: "Hundreds of thousands of people have donated money online, and relief agencies are warning potential donors to be wary of emotional appeals and to avoid requests from telemarketers and e-mails. Reputable Web sites should also include phone numbers for donors to get information on the charities."
New York Post: Wave Rat

United We Grieve

The San Jose Mercury News wrote about how blogs and the Internet give the world a sense of community and a "global commons" for comforting one another over the disaster. "It's become a vital source of up-to-the-minute news worldwide, a tool used by relatives separated in the disaster to find each other, and a sorrowful digital bulletin board to identify the bodies of lost loved ones," the Merc reported. "Chilling firsthand accounts and videos of the tsunami disaster and its aftermath have flourished, giving Internet users near-instant replays of events that happened in faraway countries."
San Jose Mercury News: Blogs, message boards draw world closer after tragedy (Registration required)

The New York Times, on the other hand, wrote about the online world's ability to generate conspiracy theories and other, more speculative explanations for why things happen: "On Democratic Underground, a blog for open discussion and an online gathering place for people who hate the Bush administration, a participant asked, 'Since we know that the atmosphere has become contaminated by all the atomic testing, space stuff, electronic stuff, earth pollutants, etc., is it logical to wonder if: Perhaps the "bones" of our earth where this earthquake spawned have also been affected?' The cause of the earthquake and resulting killer wave, the writer said, could be the war in Iraq. 'You know, we've exploded many millions of tons of ordnance upon this poor planet,' the writer said. 'All that "shock and awe" stuff we've just dumped onto the Asian part of this earth -- could we have fractured something? Perhaps the earth was just reacting to something that man has done to injure it. The earth is organic, you know. It can be hurt."'"
The New York Times: Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate (Registration required)

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