The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE) and the SpamCon Foundation warned Wednesday that con artists are concocting online fraud to profit from the gruesome attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, which may have killed thousands of people.
The groups say that most online scams come in the form of unsolicited e-mail, or spam, and postings in community forums soliciting donations for victims and survivors of the attacks. A typical message claims to be part of an "Express Relief Fund" or "Victims Survivor Fund." Another widespread e-mail solicited donations for the Red Cross, but the link led to a Web site unconnected with the popular, nonprofit relief organization.
The agencies cautioned would-be donors to verify the solicitor's identity through another medium such as the telephone before donating money through credit cards or sending checks.
"Virtually no bona fide relief agencies request funds by sending e-mail to people who are not already involved in that agency," CAUCE and SpamCon warned in a joint statement. "Solicitations made in this way may also violate laws in the United States and Europe."
Another group, Internet Scambusters, warned that con artists were setting up legitimate-looking Web sites for donations. The group provided a list of reputable organizations that were taking donations--including Redcross.org, Unitedway.org, Helping.org and a site set up by online retailer Amazon.com--and urged people to ignore requests from unfamiliar solicitors.
Experts in new media and communications said that the proliferation of frauds online is not surprising or new. Despite aggressive lobbying from anti-spam and privacy advocates, no federal or state agency has effectively eliminated or even reduced online frauds and spam. As the Internet has become more popular in households around the world, it has become a fertile breeding ground for quick-spreading pyramid scammers and other con artists.
Still, academics were shocked at the volume and immediacy of scams resulting from the terrorist attacks; they said they expected the severity of Tuesday's atrocities to quiet even the most hard-core spammers and unethical solicitors--at least for a few days.
"For these scams to be happening is really terrible," said Mohammed el-Nawawy, professor of communications at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. "It's taking advantage of the fact that, in these circumstances, people are still in shock and still want to help in any way they can. People are giving their blood--the most precious thing in the world--and they're also giving money. The only bright side is that people are so willing to help."
Blatant fraud wasn't the only pitch waiting in in-boxes in the wake of the attacks. Advocacy groups warned of numerous unsavory, unethical and offensive uses of the Internet, including e-mails and Web sites that attempted to spin the attacks into a marketing event--in some cases within an hour of the World Trade Center collapse.
CNET News.com readers forwarded copies of several distasteful e-mails, including one that read, "No terrorists here! Join our porn site, turn off the TV, quit watching the crap happening in the states, and join our free site!"
Several marketers, ostensibly representing life-insurance companies, also tried to prey on Americans' fear and terror after the attacks. One marketing company asked e-mail recipients to donate blood or money and provided a link to the official Red Cross Web site, then touted a 70 percent discount on term life insurance. A CNET News.com reader bashed the marketing pitch as "unbelievably crass."
CAUCE Vice President John Mozena said he wasn't surprised by the volume and urgency of spam since the attacks, but he was disgusted nonetheless. Especially galling, he said, were e-mails selling commemorative products relating to the disaster or attempting to drive traffic to pornography sites.
"I don't think that it's going too far to call this evil," Mozena said. "Is this going to do any more damage than regular spam? No, it's not. But does this have potential to grab some people whose defenses are low and who desperately want to do anything to help? Yeah, it does."
Within hours of the attacks, for example, CNET News.com received numerous e-mails purportedly from young girls seeking more information about the tragedy. Many of the e-mail addresses, however, contained lewd phrases, indicating that the senders were unlikely to be young girls interested in information about terrorism.
Gartner analysts Maurene Grey and Joyce Graff say the terrorist attacks will likely ignite a flurry of Internet hoaxes and chain letters.
Although it's unclear how many of the terrorist attack-oriented e-mails are true, history proves that it's foolish to believe Internet gossip.
Pierre Salinger, former Kennedy White House spokesman and ABC correspondent, held a 1997 press conference to report new evidence about the TWA Flight 800 crash. He said the Boeing 747, which crashed in 1996 off the coast of Long Island, was downed by a missile, possibly fired by the U.S. Navy. His investigation hinged on documents that had been circulating online for weeks--and had been largely discounted. Investigators later concluded that the plane exploded when a spark touched off fuel-tank fumes, and Salinger was widely discredited.
Wanting to belong
Numerous e-mails relayed survivors' accounts, typically forwarded through dozens of people; the average recipient did not personally know the alleged eyewitness. It's unclear whether such e-mails were fiction or real-life accounts from people who actually witnessed the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
To some extent, sociologists said, it doesn't matter whether survivor tales were accurate depictions from eyewitnesses. More important is that such stories have given onlookers around the world a sense of connection to Tuesday's horror--a connection that may mobilize them against the global threat of terrorism, or at least help them feel somewhat encouraged that they're not suffering alone.
"A lot of what's going on is that people are trying to reach out to each other to share in some sense of community," said Barry Glassner, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who specializes in irrational fears and is the author of "Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things."
"All of us want to feel like we're a part of a larger community right now, that we're somehow connected to what's going on," Glassner said. "A lot of people are passing along to people stories that take the form of 'my cousin's ex-boyfriend's sister saw such and such.' By doing that, we connect ourselves into the events going on, instead of feeling isolated and despairing."
Despite the influx of spam, scams, misinformation and distortions, more optimistic observers emphasize that the Internet has been a convenient conduit for Americans to vent fears, frustrations and anger to a virtual community.
Martha Haun, associate professor at the School of Communications at the University of Houston, said the Internet has been "instrumental" in helping people express their emotions. She compared its role after the terrorist attacks to the traditional role of the clergy in a family death or community disaster.
"We all need to tell our story, particularly if the story is traumatic or dramatic, and it's important to have somebody willing to listen," Haun said. "Being able to go online, writing your experiences down, and having others read them allows people in mourning to crystallize what they feel and gives them an audience. It's been a wonderful, cathartic thing for lots of people."