The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook cities all along the Eastern seaboard just minutes ago is likely to get Internet scammers up and moving, looking for ways to capitalize on the event by preying on people's natural curiosity and hunger for news.
As with any big event — especially a natural disaster — that draws people to the Web, online crooks quickly spring into action with enticing footage, "never-before-seen" pictures and donation sites, all designed to lure users into handing over their personal information or, in some cases, their money.
Here are some ways to stay safe online when searching for news about Tuesday's earthquake:
Beware anything 'exclusive'
Cybercriminals know that a picture is worth 1,000 words, especially in a time of crisis. That said, it could be very enticing to click on a link that offers "exclusive" video footage or pictures about the earthquake and the damage it caused.
As demonstrated following the March earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and the earthquake that hit New Zealand just weeks before, much of these so-called "exclusive" media packages are nothing more than cleverly crafted lures.
Buried in what seems to be a legitimate link could be any number of computer viruses, from malicious attachments that silently harvest data from users' computers to bank-account-stealing malware like the infamous Zeus Trojan.
Know your sources
Before instantly clicking on a picture or video, or even a news story, make sure the source is reputable. Major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, and websites like MSNBC and CNN, are much safer destinations for news and pictures than a website that looks unfamiliar.
And remember, news may travel at the speed of Twitter, but just because a topic is trending — #earthquake is naturally at the top of the list right now — it doesn't mean every link with that hashtag is secure.
The same advice goes for Facebook: A link sent from a friend could very easily be rigged. Never automatically download a file or click on a picture just because it appears to have come from one of your Facebook friends. With more than 500 million users, Facebook is a goldmine for online crooks, and when a major media event hits, so do they.
Keep your money safe
A favorite cybercrime trick, and one that is especially soulless, is the fake donation website. Both the New Zealand and Japan earthquakes saw cybercriminals setting up online donation sites that spoofed the official Red Cross website and funneled users' generous donations into their own pockets.
If you receive an email or a link urging you to donate to the relief effort, be aware of the financial danger you're putting yourself into. Handing over your credit card information has its risks in any situation and should never be a decision made in haste.
Before getting out your credit card, check that the site — whether you're donating to a cause or simply buying a pair of shoes — is encrypted with a secure HTTPS connection. There's also the risk of falling into a typosquatting attack, in which scammers set up a cleverly misspelled and fraudulent version of a real site, where everything you input becomes their property. Make sure the website's URL is exactly as it should be before proceeding with a donation.
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