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Feds promise crackdown on Katrina scams

Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department warned that many of the some 4,000 Katrina Web sites could be fake — 60 percent come from overseas, a warning sign they may be bogus. NBC's Lisa Myers investigates.
/ Source: NBC News

WASHINGTON — As weather forecasters tracked the approach of Hurricane Katrina, Alan Paller, a computer security expert with the Sans Institute, tracked another gathering storm — the rush to register Internet sites containing the name "Katrina."

"Most of them," says Paller, "appear to be just plain thieves."

Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department warned that many of some 4,000 Katrina Web sites could be fake. Sixty percent come from overseas, officials said, a warning sign the sites may be bogus.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales promised swift punishment for those who victimize generous Americans. 

"Federal, state and local law enforcement officials are watching carefully," Gonzales warned at a news conference Tuesday. "[We] will have zero tolerance for these kinds of crimes."

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon already has moved against 10 Web sites, tied to a group of white supremacists. 

"It's totally outrageous," Nixon said, "for someone to take these domain names and then solicit funds, run them through what looks like a legitimate charity using pictures and other hurricane victims, when in reality that money was running to his hate sites."

In Florida, state officials are suing a man who claimed all money donated to his sites would go to hurricane relief. In fact, it would have gone to his personal PayPal account.

Federal agents are also investigating an explosion in e-mails. Some look like pleas directly from victims. Others appear to be from the Red Cross, but in fact, the Red Cross does not send out unsolicited e-mails.

Strong emotions make people especially vulnerable during a disaster, said Art Taylor of the Better Business Bureau. "Scamsters know this and prey upon that generosity, that immediate urge to give."

No one knows yet how many have been ripped off, or for how much. Those fooled may not know for weeks — until their credit cards bills reveal where the money really went.