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Scammers create fake donation websites for Sandy victims

By David Fitzpatrick and Drew Griffin, CNN Special Investigations Unit
updated 10:30 AM EST, Sun November 11, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some 1,000 sites with "Sandy" or "relief" were registered before the storm
  • A watchdog group says it's unclear who is behind the domains
  • The FBI warned about scam artists in the wake of devastating storms
  • 70% of Americans do not check to find out where their donation money goes, the BBB says

Editor's note: For a list of legitimate charities and other ways to help Sandy victims from CNN's Impact Your World team, check out CNN.com/Impact

(CNN) -- As the Northeast digs out from a second major storm in little more than a week, experts say Internet scam artists are preying on generous Americans who want to donate to the victims of Superstorm Sandy.

According to a Maryland-based Internet watchdog company, more than 1,000 Internet domain sites with the words "Sandy" or "relief" were registered either as the storm was approaching the Caribbean last week or, in some cases, even before the hurricane hit.

"We have no idea who these people are," Johannes Ulrich, president of SANS Security told CNN from his home in Jacksonville, Florida. "And what we notice is that they do register hundreds of these domains, in part, trying to trick people who go to these domains and then donate the money."

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Many of these types of domain sites are registered as soon as the National Weather Service announces the names of forthcoming hurricanes in the late spring, Ulrich explained.

Some of these websites were created by construction companies, lawyers or repair companies for potential business opportunities.

Others are more questionable.

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In one instance, a website linking Sandy to the damage it caused on the island of Jamaica popped up as news accounts reported the growing intensity of the storm. The site urged people to donate and linked any would be donors to a Pay Pal account. Ulrich tracked down the registry to an individual in North Carolina.

"I couldn't find out who's behind it," Ulrich told CNN. "A person in North Carolina has it registered, but whether or not it's real, who knows?"

CNN checked with the secretary of state's office in North Carolina, where the law requires charities to register. The site does not show up.

Other Internet sites serve as an aggregate location for individuals to ask for money for themselves or their businesses.

Indiegogo, an international crowd funding site, has more than 32 pages of pleas for cash donations from Sandy victims. One woman wrote that she needed money because "We left the city and headed south towards family in Pennsylvania. We were finally let back into Salem and our home was destroyed."

CNN checked on that one as well but there was no information to prove or disprove the woman's posting.

Art Taylor, president of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, says 70% of Americans donate money without ever really checking to find out where their money goes.

"I worry that things are going to get worse," he said. "People are going to continue to get duped by unscrupulous claims."

Earlier this week, the FBI took time to issue a public warning about scam artists in the wake of devastating storms.

"The Department of Justice and the FBI remind the public to apply a critical eye and do due diligence before giving to anyone soliciting donations on behalf of hurricane victims," it said. "Solicitations can originate as e-mails, websites, door-to-door collections, mailings, telephone calls, and similar methods."

On Tuesday, hundreds lined up at a Newark, New Jersey, church to receive food, water, blankets and cleaning supplies donated by Missouri-based Convoy of Hope.

Speaking of charities in general, a spokesman for Convoy of Hope said his organization was well aware that both individuals and even organizations sometimes prey on donors.

"There are going to be others out there that do things wrong, that do things for the wrong reason," Jeff Nene said. "But when you go in with the right heart in the first place, everything works out."

The American Red Cross, the largest national charity dealing with the effects of Sandy has raised $103 million so far for Sandy victims, and that contributions "continue to pour in," according to spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego. She said all of those funds are earmarked for dealing with the victims of Sandy.

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