As East Coasters prepare for Hurricane Irene, much of the world, especially those in its path, is glued to the computer looking for up-to-the-minute weather reports and evacuation information.
Naturally, any major event that draws people to their computers also spurs online scammers into action.
Luckily, cybercriminals' tactics aren't so powerful if you know what to look for. Here are some tips to avoid getting taken for a ride by the wave of storm scams.
Don't automatically trust your "friends"
It sounds counterintuitive, especially when people are looking for real-time updates about what is now a Category 3 hurricane. But scammers have proven time and time again that hijacking a friend's Facebook or Twitter profile is an easy way to spread malware, Trojans or other nasty computer curses.
"The implicit trust relationship of social networks is risky," Jonathan Gossels, president and CEO of the Massachusetts-based security firm SystemExperts, told SecurityNewsDaily.
Just because one of your social networking contacts send you a message or a link, it does not mean that link is safe. Look at what happened last week to the Los Angeles rapper The Game : someone hacked into his Twitter account and posted a message telling his nearly 600,000 followers to call a certain phone number for the chance to become his intern.
It turned out the phone number belonged to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which became so inundated that its officers were unable to respond to emergency calls for the next three days.
The moral: dig a little deeper. Don't blindly click on links, especially shortened URLs, about Hurricane Irene. Seek out legitimate sources such as The Weather Channel or reputable major newspapers.
A picture is worth 1,000 scams
After the devastating March earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, online crooks sprung into action with a variety of attacks, but one in particular stood out. It was a message — circulated around Facebook, of course — that claimed to have YouTube footage of a tsunami wave launching a whale into a building.
In hindsight, it sounds ridiculous, but at the time the whole world was attached to the Internet, and the scam was able to lure victims into filling out surveys in order to see the footage. There was no video, of course, and any info entered into the survey became the criminals' property.
Hurricane Irene will undoubtedly draw out every newscaster and intrepid weatherman along the eastern seaboard for exclusive shots of the storm's wind surges and whatever flooding or other damage may occur. Again, the advice is simple: stick to reputable news sources, and if a picture or video seems too good (or too shocking ) too be true, it almost always is.
Watch where you donate
This last bit of advice is to counter perhaps the most soulless of all online criminals, those that prey on people's sympathy and generosity to make a quick buck.
After major natural disasters like the earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand this year, fraudsters set up fake donation websites. They were almost identical spoofs of a Red Cross site, except whoever set them up pocketed your heartfelt gift.
If you receive an unsolicited email in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene asking you to donate to help victims or the cleanup effort, be suspicious.
"Legit charities won't be reaching out to you online," Gossels said. "Never click through links from people or organizations you don't know."
As a backup plan to support what should be your new online smarts, make sure you keep your computer updated with anti-virus software and anti-malware software, which can detect these threats so you never have to deal with them.