Hurricane Scams 2008: Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike Scams Have Already Begun

As Hurricane Gustav and then Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast, we know what that means: hurricane scams are right on its heels: Internet ScamBusters #299

Hurricane Gustav and now Hurricane Ike scams have already begun.

According to Computerworld, almost 100 domain names related to Hurricane Gustav were registered by Sunday, August 31, 2008, well before Hurricane Gustav hit land in the US. Although many of these are likely legitimate, many will also be used by scammers.

In fact, if Hurricane Katrina and other major disasters have taught us anything, it’s that scammers will always try to make some quick bucks while others are suffering. And the bigger the disaster, the more scammers are at work.

Today we look at 11 categories of Hurricane Gustav scams and warn you so you can protect yourself.

On to today’s Special Issue on Hurricane Gustav scams…

Hurricane Scams 2008: Hurricane Gustav Scams Have Already Begun

When Hurricane Katrina first hit, scams popped up within hours. Hurricane Gustav is no different.

Since online scams are almost certainly going to pop up in your inbox (if they haven’t already), how can you decide what is a scam and what is authentic?

Chances are that any email asking for donations is a scam. But the email scammers can get tricky. They have created emails that sound truly authentic, tear at your heartstrings and make you feel compelled to “donate” to disaster relief.

So to help you protect yourself from the scams that are almost certain to find you, and insure that any money you decide to donate actually goes to people suffering, Scambusters will help you navigate these “waters.”

1. Phishing Scams

Prior to landfall, the Louisiana Attorney General’s office started seeing bogus emails asking people to “confirm” their bank information before the hurricane hit.

These emails sent people to bogus websites that could then be used by scammers for financial fraud and identity theft.

Further, as we mentioned, websites that claim to be legitimate Hurricane Gustav relief organizations are being created. These websites ask people to donate money by giving your financial information.

All the money you donate goes straight into the pockets of the con artists. The scammers can use this information to steal your identity, as well.

Here’s an example of what an email could look like…

“Please give your charitable donations to the victims of Hurricane Gustav. The chaos and destruction experienced by the region and its victims is unimaginable. But you can help these people regain their lives by giving them some hope. Your donation will go a long way to giving these victims their lives back. Our prayers and compassion go out to them. Make a generous donation to the American Red Cross by (clicking this link).”
[bogus but legitimate sounding domain name listed here]

Sounds legitimate and plays on your emotions. But don’t fall for it.

Action: If you want to make a donation through the Red Cross or another disaster relief organization, go to an organization’s office itself, or the official website by typing in the domain name, like Emails are too risky.

2. Viruses and Trojans

These emails usually are geared to getting you to open them and click on the attachment, which then infects your computer with a virus or Trojan.

For example, the subject line of an email might read something like “80% of city underwater” or “Entire neighborhoods completely washed away.”

Attached are photos related to the subject line — either real or bogus.

The attachments often contain viruses or Trojans that track everything you do on your computer or give the sender complete access to your PC.

Action: Delete emails such as this. Don’t click on the attachments.

3. Variations of the Nigerian Fee Scam

In this scam, the sender plays on your emotions again. You’re supposed to help someone retrieve large amounts of money that are, for some reason, tied up in relation to an area that Hurricane Gustav has hit.

You can learn more about these scams in our article The Nigerian Advance Fee Scheme.

Action: As with any other scam email, delete it.

4. Investment, Energy and Security Scams

Since 10% of the natural gas and 5% of the crude oil that Americans consume is produced off the U.S. Gulf Coast, it’s very likely that Hurricane Gustav will produce some investment, energy and security scams.

After Hurricane Katrina, the SEC reported that emails were circulating that claimed certain penny stocks would sky rocket. Reasons varied. Some were supposed to rise because of “refinery glitches.”

Action: Delete all emails promoting stocks, futures, and other investments related to Hurricane Gustav.

5. Emails that relate to a disaster to sell unrelated products

What do weight loss products have to do with Hurricane Gustav?

Absolutely nothing.

But there are some that will try to sell products that have nothing to do with Hurricane Gustav relief.

Here’s an example of what one of these emails might look like…

Subject: Entire street washed away.

Louisiana Officials predict that as many as 45 people were washed away when flooding destroyed this New Orleans Neighborhood.

Hours after Gustav struck, entire neighborhoods were no more. Winds in excess of 120 mph uprooted trees and flooding washed away any evidence of civilization.

Read more… [Link to a weight loss product]

Action: Ignore and delete these emails.

6. Emails asking for individual donations to help a victim’s family

These scams are surprisingly simple. They’re often just a one or two sentence email asking for a donation. For example…

Subject: My younger sister has only the clothes on her back thanks to Hurricane Gustav. Please help her with a donation.

Action: Delete these emails. You can find more about charity scams on our site.

7. Hate Websites

These websites claim a disaster is “the wrath of God.” They might claim the victims were “wicked” and got what they deserved. Then they ask people to donate to them, either for financial or identity theft purposes.

Action: Delete these emails.

8. Chain Letters

Here’s an example: “Every time this email is forwarded, 25 cents will be donated to Hurricane Gustav victims.”

Completely bogus.

Action: Delete these emails and certainly don’t pass them along.

9. Scammers claiming to be official government agencies, banks, credit card companies, etc.

Scammers who try this out will claim they can help victims by expediting insurance claims or donating money. They often use replicas of well known logos, like MasterCard or Allstate.

The real goal of these scams is to steal credit card, bank, Social Security numbers, and other personal information. These scams are common both online and offline.

Action: Follow the advice we give each week in Scambusters on avoiding these types of scams.

10. Contractor Scams

Contractor scams are more common offline than online. Scammers pose as contractors and ask people for money so they can do some immediate, upfront repair work. Of course, since they aren’t real contractors, they will never show up to do any repair work.

Some real contractors also take advantage of the disaster by price gouging. Since there is a shortage of legitimate contractors, people are relieved to find someone to do their work.

The Alabama Attorney General Troy King has already warned that his office will prosecute price gouging, and he has advised consumers to be careful of fraud in damage repairs from Hurricane Gustav.

Action: Be skeptical and follow the advice in Contractor Scams: How to Avoid “Rent-a-Creep” Schemes.

11. Fee-based Spam: These emails offer to locate people you know who may have been a hurricane victim.

Action: Delete these emails.

How to Protect Yourself

In summary (and in addition to the advice above), here are four ways you can keep yourself safe from Hurricane Gustav scams:

1. Use common sense. And remember, if it is spam, it’s a scam.

2. Never donate from an email request. It’s almost certainly a scam. Never click on the links in emails.

Make sure any charity you do donate to is legitimate. Find out how to tell if charities are legitimate on our site.

4. Don’t open attachments in unknown emails. There is a good chance they contain viruses or Trojans.

Finally, on a more personal note, our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone impacted by Hurricane Gustav.

Time to close — we’ll see you next week.