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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 17, 2010

Avoid Haiti-related scams by keeping your guard up

By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON 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 started warning 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 issued a warning that fraudulent charities will likely 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, D.C., 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 winds that accompanied the storms. So many popped up that the FBI partnered with the Justice Department, 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 of 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.

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.

• Be skeptical of people claiming to be surviving victims. After Katrina, dozens of individuals were indicted for falsely representing themselves as such.

• Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations will assist relief victims. Despite what some organizations might say, there are expenses connected to collecting money. Even a credit card donation may involve, at a minimum, a processing fee.

• Verify the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations. There are a number of Internet-based resources that can assist you in vetting a charity. For example, you can go to www.bbb.org/charity, www.charitywatch.org or www.guidestar.org.

• Watch carefully as you search and click. Con artists often set up look-alike Web sites. One way to be safe is to follow a link to a charity from a site you trust. For example, you can go to www.whitehouse.gov and find some links to donate to Haitian relief.

• Make contributions directly to known organizations rather than going through third parties. Cutting out the middleman may help more of your money go to the relief effort.

• Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the impacted areas. Many well-meaning charities may ask for donations, but make sure they are equipped to effectively provide aid.

• Be cautious about giving out your personal or financial information to anyone soliciting contributions. This is prime time for identity theft.

If you have received what you believe to be a fraudulent or even suspicious e-mail, please file a complaint at www.ic3.gov.

Crooks will attempt to capitalize on the relief efforts in Haiti. If you want to make a donation, make sure your gift will be used for those in need.