by Michelle Singletary
WASHINGTON -- The disaster that struck Japan on Friday afternoon, March 11, and the suffering of its many victims have stunned the world. Sadly, it has also brought out the con artists who come along after one of these tragedies and try to dupe potential donors to the relief cause.
Criminals know that people will often give without checking the legitimacy of the charitable appeal. "Disaster relief-giving is impulsive and highly emotional," said Tim Seiler, director of the Fund Raising School at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. "So with the impulse of people wanting to help and the speed and ease of technology, you have a prescription for fraud."
People have responded with donations to Japanese relief efforts. But the giving isn't as generous as was the case when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti last year. As of Wednesday, six days after the disaster, approximately $49 million in donations had been given, as reported by 19 U.S.-based nonprofit organizations accepting donations for Japan relief, according to the Center on Philanthropy. By comparison, the Haitian relief effort had raised $227.8 million from 43 organizations at the six-day post-disaster mark.
Seiler speculates there are a number of reasons why donations aren't as high for Japan. Unlike Haiti, Japan is a well-developed, industrialized country. In the U.S., it's seen as a peer nation that is self-sufficient. The death toll, so far, isn't as high as it was in Haiti. And Haiti has a far needier population, Seiler said. "Even the initial television coverage has been different," Seiler said in an interview. "In Japan, we see wider shots of buildings and physical areas that have been impacted. There has been less focus on faces. People seeing those TV shots have a different feeling."
Still, con artists will find sympathetic and trusting donors. Just days after the earthquake and tsunami struck, U.S. law enforcement officials, including the FBI and the Internet Crime Complaint Center, felt it was necessary to issue warnings about phony solicitations.
The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team has also issued it own caution to computer users about e-mail scams and fake antivirus or phishing attacks. Graham Cluley, the senior technology consultant at security firm Sophos, said in a blog post that a reader had passed along an e-mail that claims to be from the British Red Cross. The e-mail asks the recipient to send money by way of MoneyBookers, an online payment company. Because of such scams, MoneyBookers has created a page on its website asking people to be careful about their giving.
One would question if such warnings are necessary and yet after every major disaster, people do fall prey to charity scams. These types of scams have become so pervasive that the Justice Department created the National Center for Disaster Fraud in the fall of 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The center, in Baton Rouge, La., screens reports about possible fraud relating to all types of disasters and refers those reports to the field offices of appropriate federal law enforcement agencies. The center, which has agents and analysts from multiple agencies including the Postal Inspection Service, the FBI and the Secret Service, has processed more than 44,000 complaints stemming from 60 disasters, according to deputy director Kathleen Wylie.
The center has not received any complaints in the wake of the Japanese catastrophe, but Wylie does not doubt that there will be some. In preparation, the center has set up a special Japan disaster code. You can send reports of fraud by e-mail to disaster(at symbol)leo.gov or call the fraud hotline at (866) 720-5721.
"We in the United States Department of Justice will not tolerate fraud which threatens to steal from those in need, and will investigate and prosecute anyone who engages in such fraudulent conduct," said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who also serves as the fraud center's executive director. "We will therefore depend on the vigilance of our citizens to report any suspected fraudulent charities or conduct to the NCDF."
It's just crazy that there's even a need for a dedicated disaster fraud center, but, as Wylie said: "There will always be people who will give the shirt off their back and go into their closet to get three more. And there will always be people who will take the shirt off your back."
The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance has released tips for directing donations. Go to www.bbb.org/us/charity or www.charitynavigator.org to research charities and relief organizations.
If you feel moved to give, please be careful. Don't impulsively respond to an appeal. Make the effort to check it out.