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Haiti and Internet Safety
The devastation of the January earthquake in Haiti has touched the heartstrings and opened the purse strings of millions of Americans who have responded to appeals for assistance. As President Obama said in a recent cover story for Newsweek, “In times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do.”
Unfortunately, though, there are people who would prey on that spirit of generosity, using it to steal money or even identities from people who believe they are donating to relieve the suffering in Haiti. For example, many people have received email appeals that say they are from a legitimate and recognized charity. The site they are sent to looks like the site of the charity. But when they enter their credit card information, that money and that information goes not to Haiti, but to scammers and identity thieves.
These scams are a type of phishing, a term for a way scammers get personal information from you by pretending to be someone they are not. In this case, the scammers pretend to be a charity and get you to give them your credit card number. It is best to make donations directly through the agency site or through some other recognized vehicle, such as the recent opportunity to donate to Haiti via cellphone.
Phishing also can help thieves gather other information. For example, you might get an email that appears to be from your bank, your credit company, your online provider or even a government agency. The email, which sounds very official, tells you that you need to update information, usually including credit card and/or bank information. You might be asked to send the information by reply email or to click through to an official-looking Web site. If you receive such an email, check with the institution directly before responding.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, which leads the fight against identity theft, there are a number of other scams, including:
The Nigerian money scam. You get an email that purports to be from someone in a foreign country, not necessarily Nigeria, saying he has to get money out of his country in a hurry for some reason. If you let him put the money into your bank account, he will give you a sizable fee. He just needs your account information. But you’ll never see anything but withdrawals from your account. This one falls into the too-good-to-be-true category.
Lottery or sweepstakes scam. This works like the Nigerian money scam. You get an email telling you that you have won a big lottery or sweepstakes award, often from a foreign country. You just need to provide bank account or credit card information, and the money will be credited to your account.
Bogus Internet auctions. There are many legitimate auctions on the Internet, but even they are a case of "buyer beware." Sometimes buyers get nothing at all or find that the merchandise is not at all as it was represented online. When you are participating in an Internet auction, be sure to check the feedback on your seller. You also might want to insist that the money be held in escrow until you have received the items.
Online investment chat rooms or email messages that claim to provide unbiased information about an investment. Sometimes these are less than truthful and are created by whoever is offering the investment, as a way of drumming up excitement and business. Carefully check the source of any investment advice you find on the Web.
Free offers. You receive an email or view a popup ad offering something free, like Internet access or access to pornography, if you just provide your credit card information as identification. The email or the ads promise that the information is for identification purposes only, and that no charge will be made to your account. But usually, they lie.
Chain letters. This is an update on an old scam. You get an email including a list of people and asking you to send money to some or all of them. Then you are supposed to send the chain on to several people you know, and eventually you will get money back from people further down the chain. If a chain letter asks you to send money, it is illegal. And if you participate, you also are breaking the law.
Work at home offers. You can make money working from your home, of course. But many of the online or email offers you see will only make the scammer rich. Be very, very suspicious of any offer that tells you that you can make lots of money quickly or with little effort, especially if you have to pay upfront for information or materials.
Finally, remember that the Internal Revenue Service never communicates by email. So if you get an email saying, for example, that the IRS will send your tax refund if you give them your bank account number, it is a scam,
You can find more information on consumer scams, or make a report if you have been the victim of a scam, at the consumer section of the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site,