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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.

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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 do."

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."

Scam tactics
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 the agency.

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 name.
  • 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 General's fraud 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 worry them."


-- Posted: Sept. 26, 2001




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