Computer Crime Research Center


Groups warn of tsunami scams

Date: January 10, 2005
By: Gregg Keizer

Millions of dollars donated by individuals to tsunami relief in South-East Asia have brought criminals and scammers out of the woodwork, government agencies and private anti-fraud groups have warned.

"Within hours of the earthquake and tsunami, scams began appearing online and offline," said Jim Lanford, co-editor of, in an online alert.

"We're not surprised by these scams," he said. "The same thing happened right after 9/11 and after every major natural disaster since then."

For instance, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned consumers about a variety of scams being run off the tsunami relief effort.

Complaints to the Internet Crime Complaint Center ranged from bogus websites trawling for donations and tsunami-related spam to for-a-fee offers to locate the missing and sites that played off the disaster but really only were meant to infect PCs with trojans and worms.

Other ploys included emails purporting to include photos or video of the disaster and its aftermath. Such attachments could be worm or virus payloads, the FBI warned.

The bureau was working with both domestic and overseas law enforcement, and was "resolved to aggressively pursuing those who would attempt to victimise philanthropic individuals," according to a statement.

Among the ways scammers were using the disaster, said Finnish security firm F-Secure, was to twist the typical "Nigerian" advance fee fraud using topical details from affected countries.

In a standard swindle, an email arrives claiming that a prominent government official or businessperson has suddenly died, most often in horrible car or air accidents, and that huge sums can be retrieved with the recipient's help.

For a fee or access to the recipient's bank account, the sender promises to hand over a portion of the funds supposedly frozen in foreign accounts.

One of the rewritten Nigerian scams comes from "Princess Surasit Mangkut," whose "whole family" was "washed away", including her "crippled diabetic husband" who had somehow managed to squirrel away US$24 million by cheating the Thai government and private developers of holiday properties.

Now, however, the princess appears to have had a change of heart. "I am totally ashamed of myself in the selfish and greedy manner I have carried on in life and I pray I can make amends in any way possible," the sender wrote.

To make matters worse, the princess has been "diagnosed as being terminally ill with cancer, doctors have given me 6 month [sic]." The email asks for help in recovering the millions. In return, the recipient is promised 25 percent.
Earlier last week, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also issued a fraud alert, warning Americans to be on the watch for bogus fundraising operations. Among its several cautions, it reminded consumers not to divulge personal or financial information such as Social Security, credit card and bank account numbers.

Recent phishing attacks have used the tsunami catastrophe. "Fraudulent websites have been set up pretending to be legitimate tsunami relief organisations," said's Lanford.

"These sites request charitable donations, but in fact steal financial information and may be used for identity theft as well. Contributions go into the pockets of the scammers."

Consumers around the world have been urged to direct their donations only to organisations that they know and trust.

Perhaps because of the huge amounts of money involved the scams and schemes have been inventive.

A Canadian art student, for example, has been accused of trying to turn a profit by selling the domain name on eBay.

The 20-year-old, Josh Kaplan, claimed he was selling the domain name to raise money for relief, but the Connecticut woman who donated the name to Kaplan when he said a represented a relief organisation, thought different when she spotted going for US$50,000 on the online auction site.

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