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Dubious Katrina Web sites increasing

FBI, Justice Department vow to prosecute scammers

From Terry Frieden
CNN

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Many of the 4,000 Web sites claiming to offer help to victims of Hurricane Katrina are suspicious, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker said investigators have reviewed 2,100 sites and about 60 percent of them originate outside the United States. "That's not a reason unto itself to conclude that that's a scam Web site, but it is a reason to be cautious," Swecker said.

Swecker said no arrests have been made. But the number of criminal cyber probes has increased substantially since last Thursday, when the FBI acknowledged it was investigating eight instances of potential Web site fraud.

"I can't give you the exact number, but it's a lot more than eight," he said.

Last week the FBI said there were 2,300 sites that appeared to solicit money or offer Katrina aid.

Red Cross General Counsel Mary Elcano told reporters the organization is prepared to file civil lawsuits against operators of Web sites who do not promptly shut down when ordered to do so by the FBI.

Some of the suspect activities are sophisticated endeavors that are created to look like authentic Red Cross sites.

Many of the apparently fraudulent Web sites trying to tap into Katrina relief donations feature pop-ups, spam through provided links and other unsolicited e-mails.

"The emphasis here is on 'unsolicited,' things that come in that you didn't -- you have never made contact with this particular charitable organization," Swecker said. "There's a link. There's a pop-up. There's something that you need to do. Do not click on it.

"The best thing to do is to know the Internet address of the company or the NGO, the non-government organization, that you're dealing with and type that in yourself rather than clicking on a link."

Others traps are variations of the "Nigerian scam letter." The scammer will appear to offer money or relief help but will ask for money first from the e-mail recipient. Still other e-mails misdirect the user to bogus sites intended to lure people into divulging personal financial information.

"There is no place for crime of this nature," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said. He promised aggressive prosecution of the "devious few who have sought to take advantage of our collective generosity."

Gonzales said the federal prosecutors' offices and the federal courts in Louisiana and Mississippi are functioning and will be able to handle the fraud prosecutions.

But he acknowledged that getting the full caseload handled in the Gulf Coast could require congressional action.

"[We are] looking at legislation to perhaps extend venue, the jurisdiction of the courts, so that in a case of emergency the court in New Orleans, for example, could hear the case somewhere else within the state of Louisiana," he said.

Current law requires cases to be heard in the judicial district where the charges are brought. Louisiana has three federal judicial districts.

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