Hurricane Sandy has been a disaster for residents of the Eastern Seaboard and the Caribbean. But it's a marketing opportunity for online scammers and criminals, who will seize upon the media coverage and public concern to try to rip you off.
The most immediate threat may come from malware hidden in fake news stories and in disaster photos and videos online. If you see a link on Twitter or Facebook that promises a shocking disaster video, but then are told you have to install additional software to see it, stay far away, especially if it's a shortened link.
"Thieves count on people to be hungry for news, so they infect images and video with malware," said IDentityTheft911's Kelly Santos in a blog posting yesterday (Oct. 30). "Stick with legitimate sites, such as your local news station or newspaper, for the latest information."
Don't count on Google search results to be clean, either. Online criminals use a technique called search engine poisoning to push malware-infected pages high up in Google rankings. If the link's to a news site you've never heard of, don't go there.
Preying upon kindness
After the fake news stories and photos come the charity scammers. They'll pretend to be from reputable organizations like the Red Cross and will solicit donations to help the victims of the hurricane.
"Everyone wants to donate money or goods to assist victims of natural disasters," said Jane Driggs, president of the Utah Better Business Bureau, in a blog posting Monday (Oct. 29). "Many do so with a sense of urgency, which is exactly what scam artists use to take advantage of your generosity."
If you get an email from a known charity, check the email address to make sure it's really coming from the right place. If the email address ends in ".com," it may be fake, as most charities have ".org" domain names. In other cases, the name of the charity may be slightly misspelled.
If you get an email from a charity you've never heard of, ignore it, especially if it's promising that 100 percent of donations will go to hurricane victims.
"All charities have at least some administrative and fundraising costs," said the Utah Better Business Bureau. "If a charity is claiming 100 percent of collected funds go to disaster victims, they are not telling the whole truth."
Whatever you do, don't click on links in charity emails. They could lead to poisoned websites that could infect your browser with a drive-by download, or to fake donation pages that just want to steal your identity and credit-card information.
If you really want to donate, call a well-known charity — don't let them call you.
Some scammers will cold-call generous souls, pressuring them to hand over credit-card details to complete strangers. Others will even go door-to-door asking for cash donations.
Ask them for the name of their charity, then hang up or shut the door.
Adding insult to injury
The most at risk are those who've directly suffered as a result of the hurricane.
Anyone who's been evacuated is in danger of identity theft as sensitive documents are left behind in damaged homes or lost in relief shelters.
It's best to put all your family's private papers — birth certificates, Social Security cards, property titles — in a large Ziploc plastic bag before you evacuate, and to keep that bag with you at all times.
IDentityTheft911 recommends that evacuees call the local post office and have their mail held there.
For people with damaged homes, beware insurance scammers and bogus contractors. Shady salesmen will offer to cut through the red tape of insurance claims, and strange handymen will knock on your door, offering to fix that roof or window for cheap on a cash-only basis.
Don't believe either one. Call your insurance company directly, and deal with it the hard way. Don't give a contracting job to anyone who doesn't have a license and doesn't take checks or credit cards.