Even a weaker-than-expected hurricane has presented a prime opportunity to dupe well-meaning charitable donors.
The threat is underscored by the sudden proliferation of Internet addresses related to Gustav. Sites are even being registered already for Tropical Storm Hanna, which isn't expected to reach the U.S. until later this week, and for other names designated for subsequent storms in 2008.
More than 200 Internet addresses related to Gustav were registered in the 24 hours after the storm hit the Gulf Coast, Internet security expert Marcus Sachs said Tuesday. This flurry of activity came on top of nearly 100 addresses set up in the preceding two days. The names reference Gustav or Hannah and words such as "help," "aid," "victims" and "survivors."
Many of the Web addresses are legitimate and redirect to proven charity sites, said Sachs, director of the Bethesda, Md.-based SANS Institute Internet Storm Center, which tracks viruses and other Internet problems. But many more are either for sale or are associated with IP addresses known to host malicious software, spyware or other hazardous content.
"Any time there's a natural disaster, the scammers start setting up their Web sites," he said. "Like with anything else, it's buyer beware. Anywhere on the Internet you go, there's a risk of fraud."
And with more tropical storms forming, there probably will be appeals by telephone and e-mail for donations. The Better Business Bureau of Central & Eastern Kentucky offers these tips to make sure your donation goes to a legitimate cause:
Check out organizations with the BBB. Local groups are evaluated by the BBB of Central & Eastern Kentucky (1-800-866-6668 or www.bluegrass.bbb.org), and national groups are evaluated by the nationwide BBB Wise Giving Alliance (www.give.org).
Be wary of the pitch. Be careful of appeals that are long on emotion, but short on describing what the charity will do. Also see whether the appeal explains what the charity intends to do with any excess contributions. Watch out for high pressure to give "on the spot" and of offers to send a "runner" to pick up your contribution.
Verify the appeal. Phone solicitors might seek contributions allegedly on behalf of well-known relief charities without authorization. Some might be con artists trying to acquire credit card or other personal information. Ask the caller to send written information before making a decision. The information should describe programs and finances, and how much of your dollar goes to the programs and how much goes to fund-raising and administrative expenses.
Do not give cash. Make a check or money order out to the name of the charitable organization, not to a person collecting the donation. Find out if your gift is tax deductible.
Be alert if considering giving online. Spam or e-mail messages asking for a contribution might be used in a "phishing" scam, in which the messages link to a "false" Web site that looks like the Web site of an established relief charity.