Haiti earthquake brings out generosity, and scam artists

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, January 17, 2010

After a disaster, another tragedy is sure to follow.

Once the news broke about the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. government and other organizations quickly warned of scam artists trying to dupe people into sending them money intended for the victims. Such low-life hucksters know that once some people see video and photos of victims crying out for help, their generosity will trump their caution.

Just a day after the quake, the FBI issued a warning about Haiti-related scams. The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance also warned that fraudulent charities will probably emerge.

"As the past has proven, whenever there is a major headline story, like the Haiti earthquake disaster, there will be schemes to capitalize on it," said Edward Johnson, president and chief executive of the Better Business Bureau of Metro Washington and Eastern Pennsylvania. "It is disheartening to think that there are those who would take advantage of a catastrophic event to line their pockets with charitable donations meant for the victims. Nonetheless, it is a harsh reality."

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, the scam artists blew in as fiercely as the gale-force winds that accompanied the storms. So many popped up that the FBI partnered with the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies to form the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force.

The FBI saw a flood of Web sites soliciting for charitable donations. In 2006, the agency reported, a Florida con artist who claimed he was a pilot and had delivered relief supplies to hurricane victims pleaded guilty to a Katrina-related Internet scam. More than four years after those storms, people are still being sentenced for charity-related fraud cases.

Don't think you are too smart to avoid a scam. Crooks are clever, and the technology is so good that it's easy to be duped.

"People get emotional, and they want to give fast and they want to do it conveniently, so they set caution aside," Johnson said in an interview.

But you must be cautious.

"Without question, it is good and noble for consumers and businesses to contribute to worthwhile and helpful charities," Johnson said. "In times of calamity, it is important to remember those who have been affected and are in dire need. It is the right thing to do. There is one simple caveat: Give with your head as well as your heart."

No doubt you've seen the fraud warnings, but they are worth repeating. The FBI and the Better Business Bureau recommend the following:

-- Don't respond to any unsolicited incoming e-mail or click on links contained within those messages.

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