Charity Scams Found on the Web

Apparent scams preying on people who want to donate to help victims of Hurricane Katrina are being found on the Internet. No regulatory agency checks on the backgrounds of people who register domain names, so the field is open for abuse.

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Americans are giving millions and millions of dollars to help the victims of Katrina. Charitable donations are outpacing those for the victims of 9/11 and for last year's Asian tsunami. And some of those funds will end up in the pockets of scam artists who are seizing on the tragedy just as they have in previous natural disasters. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, law enforcement is cracking down hard, especially on Internet-based hoaxes.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Days after the tsunami hit, the FBI arrested a Pennsylvania man. He admitted sending out 800,000 e-mails that were supposedly from Mercy Corps, soliciting donations for victims of the tragedy. The man said he thought it would be OK to keep some of the money if he gave a portion to charity. Now in the wake of Katrina, the FBI's Paul Bresson says there's a lot of suspicious activity to investigate.

Mr. PAUL BRESSON (FBI): To date, we've identified more than 2,300 of these sites that are associated with Katrina relief efforts. We have not had a chance to go through all of them yet. Many of those are, in fact, legitimate, but there are some that are raising suspicion and are worthy of further attention.

ABRAMSON: Yesterday, the Justice Department announced the formation of the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force to track such scams. Authorities are hoping aggressive efforts will limit the damage, but they are already finding cases to prosecute.

Florida officials have filed suit against Robert Moneyhan, alias: Demon Moon. He's accused of registering a bunch of Katrina-related names for Web sites from katrinahelp.com to katrinarelieffund.com. The suit alleges that Moneyhan never registered with the state. That's required before anyone can solicit donations. And it says he misled people about how their donations would be used.

In Missouri, authorities have shut down Web sites linked to white supremacist Frank Weltner. Attorney General Jay Nixon says Weltner was luring donors to Web pages that are basically fronts for a site called Internetdonations.org.

JAY NIXON (Attorney General, Missouri): And that is the site that he also uses and has used to raise money for Jew Watch and other hate-oriented white supremacist organizations and sites.

ABRAMSON: Nixon is trying to take down those sites, but at least one still asks for money to help the white victims of Katrina. Through a Web broadcast called American Dissident Voices, an announcer claims that white people across the Gulf states behaved themselves.

(Soundbite of Web broadcast)

Unidentified Announcer: But in majority black New Orleans, it was totally different. Overshadowing heroism was animalistic evil.

ABRAMSON: The state says Frank Weltner's group deceived contributors about where the money would go, and also failed to register with the state. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon says he set up a Web site called Checkacharity, which helps would-be donors examine the credentials of organizations. In fact, that's how he learned about the white supremacist site.

Mr. NIXON: We literally got a tip by someone by e-mail. And, you know, we were extremely concerned that money was being raised on these false pretenses, and consequently went very quickly and were in court by 2:00 that afternoon.

ABRAMSON: Law enforcement is also getting help from Web-based companies like PayPal, whose payment services are often used by scammers. And they're getting tips from security companies like UK-based Sophos. Spokeswoman Martha Stewart says that Sophos spotted one e-mail that offered a link to Katrina-related news. Users who clicked on that link could end up with dangerous computer code installed on their machines.

Ms. MARTHA STEWART (Spokesperson, Sophos): And then once it gains control of the computer, it can do anything from allowing the computer itself to start spamming, or it could actually start looking at key logs and start to track information such as pass codes.

ABRAMSON: Efforts to profit from Katrina are not limited to the Internet. Law enforcement has also found scammers asking for donations by going door to door. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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