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Internet aids tsunami recovery

By Michael Coren

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Online donors of tsunami aid need to ensure they're not being duped.

How much of your donation is going to relief?
• Aid groups: How to help
• Gallery: Stories of survival
• Flash: How tsunamis form
• Special report: After the tsunami
Disaster Relief
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
Disasters (General)

(CNN) -- The Internet has played an unprecedented role supplying aid, money and information in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunamis.

Hours after the waves swallowed coastline and swamped villages, an electronic movement was under way. Donations poured into aid agencies through Web sites. Friends, relatives and strangers turned to the Web for information about missing relatives and tsunami survivors.

Individuals, linked by an electronic network from text messages to Web sites, began answering pleas for help, releasing lists of survivors and funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to aid agencies even as authorities struggled to gain control of the situation.

"It's been going on nonstop," said Andreas Hoistad, an IT worker in Norway, who helped establish the Phuket Disaster Message Board a day after the December 26 tsunamis.

The independent Web site, built by a few computer specialists with donated time and hardware, offers more than 13,000 postings with lists of names, descriptions of the damage, pictures of relatives and links for those seeking to identify victims.

"The forum proved quite quickly that people involved in the disaster had a great need for information," Hoistad said.

The electronic bulletin board has sections for the missing, reunited and news.

One posting for families lists identifying marks on bodies recovered from the devastated Thai coastline: "Male. Boy, blue T-shirt with a full-print of 'Spiderman' on front." Another thanks searchers who found relatives or sent back word about their condition.

Although a week has passed since the machinery of government and aid agencies was set in motion, thousands continue to visit the site each day. Web sites of foreign ministries and embassies still offer a limited number of resources for anxious families looking for loved ones.

"We thought the need for the site would have disappeared a couple of days ago," said Hoistad, who recorded more than 3 million users who've visited the site at least once. "It will be there as long as someone needs it."

Spontaneous Internet campaigns -- fueled by volunteers and personal connections -- are a common, but not necessarily the most reliable, response to disasters.

While hospitals, governments and aid agencies must vet their information, Web sites are available to everyone. Disclaimers about the accuracy of the information are seldom enough to protect people from false hope or outright fraud.

"We're now starting to see a number of instances of e-mail spammers sending out phishing e-mails claiming to be from legitimate charities and from fake charities," said Chris Green, a technical editor for Computing Newspaper, a technology magazine.

"The problem is with these that the donations are not only not going to charities, but you're handing over credit card info and details used for further fraud."

The FBI issued a public fraud alert Wednesday, warning of several online scams soliciting relief donations.

The bureau's Internet Crime Complaint Center has received reports of apparently fraudulent Web sites being established purportedly to assist with collection and relief efforts. The bureau termed the actions "egregious" and vowed to pursue the perpetrators.

"Complaints submitted [to the FBI center] have identified several schemes that involve both unsolicited incoming e-mails ... as well as reports of responses to posted e-mail addresses to assist for a fee in locating loves ones who may have been a victim of the disaster," the alert said.

The FBI said it had also detected a fraudulent relief donation Web site which, when accessed, can infect a user's computer.

Despite instances of fraud, identity theft does not appear to have occurred on a large scale.

In fact, well-established retailers have thrown their marketing muscle and credibility behind the tsunami relief effort.

Both and feature links to the American Red Cross. EBay allows sellers to donate 10 percent to 100 percent of their proceeds to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, through eBay Giving Works, as well as other charities.

Some aid workers said this level of giving has not been seen for at least a decade.

"There was such a huge impact immediately [that] people acted immediately," said Helen daSilva, a spokeswoman for Oxfam America. "The numbers have been incredible."

The London-based non-profit organization announced its goal of collecting $5 million for tsunami relief on December 29. It met that mark a day later. By this Tuesday, OxFam had collected about $15 million with a majority of the 73,000 donations made online.

Because the development and relief agency has been operating in some southern Asian nations for years, OxFam America said it will remain there for what it expects to be an unfolding crisis.

"[Donations] are going to be there when the crisis period is over and the rebuilding will be taking place," said daSilva.

"At this point, nothing would be too much. We have the infrastructure in place ... to help these communities rebuild."

CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report.

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