Identity thieves prey on disaster donors
Americans who make donations to help the victims
of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks face a double threat. Thieves
want your money and your identity.
Con artists and identity thieves are using phone calls, e-mails
and Web sites to obtain names, addresses, Social Security numbers
and credit card numbers of people eager to help attack victims.
"More than money, they're going to be after personal information,"
says Jay Foley, assistant director of the Identity Theft Resource
Center. "If I give you my Social Security number, you can probably
amass $50,000 to $100,000 in a very short time. It's not hard to
The scams began just hours after the terrorist attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"Unfortunately, some 300 Internet domain names were registered
frighteningly close to the attack," says Justin Page, founder
of privacy watchdog firm E-Privex. "A large number of them
are false donation sites."
One E-Privex subscriber made a $25 credit card donation to a false
victim-relief Web site on Sept. 11. She learned of the site through
an unsolicited e-mail.
Later that week, E-Privex picked up suspicious behavior on the
subscriber's credit file -- someone was trying to establish a new
address and open a new account. After E-Privex learned of the subscriber's
Sept. 11 donation, it located the site and contacted the FBI.
Nearly 300 people had given money and personal information including
Social Security numbers to the bogus charity site.
"This was, in effect, a mass identity theft," Page says.
"The FBI doesn't believe it was the first attempt or the last
attempt. There are other sites playing the same game."
Fraud experts encourage people to avoid responding to unsolicited
e-mails mentioning the tragedy. A legitimate relief agency does
not request money by sending e-mail to people not involved with
And there's no need to give out personal information, such as Social
Security numbers, when making a donation.
"You don't need to provide the foundation or organization
-- a legitimate one -- with your Social Security number," Page
says. "You simply claim it on your tax return."
Some telephone scams attempt to pressure people into making on-the-spot
monetary donations. Other scams claim to give a portion of the sale
of a particular item to help disaster victims.
The National Fraud Information Center's hotline has received reports
of an e-mail scam that requests financial support for computer experts
attempting to track Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.
"These scams are typical," says Susan Grant, director
of the National
Fraud Information Center.
"The best advice is to be cautious about
any solicitation that mentions the disaster. Give to charities you
know and trust."
What should you do if you think you've made a donation to a false
charity site? Contact the police or the FBI.
Internet and telemarketing scams may also be reported to the National
Fraud Information Center. Its toll-free hotline is (800) 876-7060.
If your identity is stolen ...
If you've given a bogus organization your personal information as
well, you may be a victim of identity theft. You'll want to act
fast because thieves certainly will.
- Contact the three
major credit bureaus. Ask them to place a fraud alert on your
credit report. Include a statement that asks creditors to call
you for permission before any new accounts are opened in your
- Contact creditors for any accounts that have been
tampered with or opened without your knowledge. Be sure to put
complaints in writing.
- File a police report. Send copies to creditors
and credit bureaus as proof of the crime.
- Report the fraud to the Office of the Inspector
hotline and the Federal Trade Commission's toll-free consumer
hotline, (877) ID-THEFT.
- Additional resources for identity theft victims
are available from the Identity
Theft Resource Center, Privacy
Rights Clearinghouse, and the FTC's ID theft Web site.
Consumer experts also worry about e-mail or telephone scams targeting
customers of businesses damaged in the terrorist attacks. Be wary
of any solicitation seeking to replace private financial account
information lost in the collapse of the World Trade Center.
"I can't think of any company in the United States that is
going to call each and every person in their database to verify
information," Foley says.
The speed with which con artists and thieves have exploited the
Sept. 11 tragedy does not surprise fraud experts.
"With any kind of disaster, man-made or natural, it's common
to find crooks that will exploit it," Grant says.
"The kinds of people who do these scams are not the kind of
people that lose sleep at night. They don't have a conscience to