Online crooks are posing as tsunami victims in an attempt to siphon some of the millions of dollars flowing to relief efforts. Internet security experts said poorly written appeals for help have begun to appear in email boxes which ask for donations through a Web site or an offshore bank account.

“We have fully fledged Web sites that spoof well-known charities,” said Paul Wood, chief information security analyst at MessageLabs, an Internet security company, in an article on Al Jazeera’s English Web site.

Relief organizations have collected millions of dollars through the Internet since Dec. 26, the day the tsunamis struck a number of Indian Ocean nations and claimed about 150,000 lives.

“It’s a good opportunity for the criminals out for a quick buck, and it’s something that people are going to respond to,” said Forrester Researcher analyst Jonathan Penn in the same article.

The fraudulent appeals, the article reported, are patterned after two existing scams. “Phishing” attacks that direct people to legitimate-looking Web sites in order to trick them into giving up their credit card numbers, and 419 scams, messages that promise huge financial gain in return for a bank account number.

“We have been rendered homeless and have lost all we have in life,” one message read according to the report. “We will be very grateful if you can assist us with any amount of money to enable us to start a new lease of life.”

Ken Dunham, malicious code intelligence manager for the Internet security company iDefense, said such scams could be very effective.

“It’s a get-rich quick thing, and it makes perfect sense in light of the disaster, Dunham said in the article. “Everybody’s heard of it, they all know lots of people have died off, maybe whole families have died off and monies truly are available.”

According to Lutheran World Relief (LWR), more people are doing their homework before giving and doing so can negate or minimize the impact of such scams.

According to a press release from LWR, the agency has received more than 15,000 gifts since Dec. 26, as well as many requests and online searches for the agency’s financial statements.

“[That’s] proof that people are taking their time to do their homework,” said Fran Troxler, manager of Mission Advancement for LWR in a press release. “They’re checking up on us before they give, and they’re giving with confidence that LWR, [which] has been working with partners in India since the 1950s, is perfectly positioned to begin the rebuilding there that will take years.”

According to Troxler, LWR has lifelong supporters “who give regularly and generously.”

“Many have informed us that they’re leaving LWR [gifts] in their wills; that’s how strongly they feel about our long-term approach to improving people’s lives,” Troxler said. “The agency, which historically has spent under 10 percent on administration and fundraising, appeals to donors large and small.”

Barbara Wasting, LWR’s Associate Director for Asia, said the organization’s longevity gives it a distinct benefit.

“Our 50-year history with our partners in India and the surrounding region really gives us an advantage when it comes to knowing local customs and having good working relationships with governments and other organizations that now we’re coordinating with,” Wasting said in the release.

“It helps us respond quickly and appropriately to reach those in need. We were part of feeding stations that began aiding survivors just 15 hours after the waves crashed ashore,” Wasting added. “But [just] as important, we immediately began assessing the conditions there and began drafting short- and long-term plans that will shape our work in the affected region for years. … We’ve broken down into phases the work that needs to be done.”

LWR has sent or committed more than $500,000 to partners in India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia for the initial response phase. The organization is programming an additional $1 million for the crisis phase, or Phase 1.

Phase 2, the transition from response to rehabilitation, is earmarked for another $1 million according to the press release from LWR. Phase 3, termed “recovery,” and which could last five years or more, is being programmed for at least $4 million.

“Our goal is to rebuild these communities so that they’re better off, physically, when we’re done, in terms of infrastructure and livelihoods, than they were before the storm,” said Wasting. “Giving people — entire communities — lives with dignity is what LWR specializes in. It’s the silver lining in this disaster that we’re focused on.”

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