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How Online Scammers Take Advantage of Humanitarian Crises

Two women realizing they were scammed online during a humanitarian crisis

Unfortunately, global, national, and local humanitarian crises are mostly out of our control. A hurricane or a tornado hits and wipes out an entire town. A pandemic strikes worldwide and millions are left suffering. Often, this brings out the best in humanity — common people band together to help those in need.

However, crises also lift the collective rocks off of the parasitic dregs of society. 

Con artists and grifters have existed since the first days of civilization. Nonetheless, the dawn of the Internet ushered in new ways for these criminals to take advantage of vulnerable, hurting people. Hackers come up with creative ways to steal your personal information, and fraudulent charities arise in the wake of every widespread tragedy.

Online scammers take advantage of humanitarian crises in hopes to catch people with their guards down. They play on sympathies and needs in order to make a quick, unearned buck. It’s important to know how to avoid these scammers, and how to protect your online security.

A woman wearing a surgical mask during a humanitarian crisis

What is a humanitarian crisis?

The United Nations defines a humanitarian crisis and emergencies as “singular event[s] or a series of events that are threatening in terms of health, safety or well-being of a community or large group of people. It may be an internal or external conflict and usually occurs throughout a large land area.”

Some of the crises that spark the greatest amount of online scammers include:

  • Local, national, or global health emergencies: For example, the AIDS, Spanish Flu, and COVID-19 pandemics.
  • Natural disasters: For example, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and wildfires
  • War-torn nations: Countries experiencing economic, financial, health, and safety issues as a result of long-term war. Current examples include Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine. 

How do online disaster scams work?

Online scammers can take advantage of humanitarian crises in multiple ways, and tend to appear in droves in the aftermath of a man-made or natural disaster. These scammers will typically set up a fraudulent charity, along with a website and an easy clickable link for donations.  

At other times, online scammers will pose as reputable organizations such as the Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the United Nations, and the World Health Organization (WHO). They’re mostly after financial gain, although they may use ill-gotten gains to data mine and steal identities as well.

Online scammers and COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused a global shutdown in the Spring of 2020, scammers were quick to spring into action. In the U.S. alone, thousands of people have been arrested for criminal fraud related to the pandemic. According to NBC News, federal prosecutors call the COVID-19 scams the “largest [widespread] fraud in U.S. history.”

Much of these scams came from an estimated 10% of fraudulent applicants of the Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans. The loan program provided disaster relief for small businesses. Yet many who did not need PPP loans falsified their applications and spent the money on themselves. 

Although the PPP loan scams didn’t target citizens, they bilked billions of dollars from the U.S. government, and prevented businesses in true need from receiving relief.

Other online scams to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic include:

  • Fraudulent medical treatments: Many COVID-19 treatments without FDA or CDC approval were promoted by online scammers. These costly plans were bogus, and sometimes, the scammers didn’t even send the product — they used their scams to steal identities and money.
  • Fake vaccination cards: At the height of the pandemic, many businesses, government spaces,  and airlines required customers to have proof of the COVID-19  vaccination. Online scammers sold expensive, bogus cards for those who did not wish to comply.
  • COVID-19 funeral scams: Among the most despicable of COVID-19 frauds, scammers searched for online obituaries and hospital records that listed the virus as cause of death. These phishing scammers contacted grieving loved ones via email or phone and posed as FEMA representatives. They would then phish for bank account and SSN Information and use it to steal money from mourners. 

In February 2023, President Biden introduced the Pandemic Anti-Fraud proposal that hopes to address and eradicate systemic fraud, as it helps the victims of scammers.

Examples of disaster fraud and bogus charities 

At times, charities and disaster relief groups that seem reputable at first glance may be exposed as scams. Federal organizations such as FEMA and the FBI, and U.S. Attorney General’s offices have even issued specific warnings for consumers. 

Some of the most common ways online scammers take advantage of humanitarian crises include:

  • Advanced loans. Scammers reach out to vulnerable people in a crisis-affected area with promises of a quick loan payout. After they receive a “small security payment” and confidential personal data (including banking information) from their potential victims, they erase any and all online presence.
  • Charity scams:.According to the FBI, charity scams are shell charities where the money goes straight to the charity’s organization and is never dispersed to those in need. After major disasters, charity scams appear and often are advertised on social media or through email. For example, in 2021, the FTC shut down a bogus charity called ASC (Associated Community Services). Although ASC operated mostly offline through robocalls, the scam used multiple causes to snag a cool $110 million to line employees’ pockets. Even some large, well-known charities have been found to scam donations. It’s vital that you know how much of your contribution goes directly to victims to prevent falling prey to these scams.
  • Contractor fraud. A contracting firm you’ve never heard of may reach out online, on the phone, or sometimes by going door to door. However, after placing a downpayment on their debris removal or repair services, you never hear from them again. The shell website they operated is wiped off of the Internet and any contact email address or phone number associated with the business no longer works. 
An unhappy having problems with what happened to her laptop

How to protect yourself from online scammers during a humanitarian crisis

Some online scammers are easy to spot. Their websites aren’t secure and look sloppy, their content is full of grammar and spelling errors. However, others are far more sophisticated and fool many people.

So how can you protect yourself from online humanitarian fraud? There are several easy ways to remain alert and guard yourself against bogus contractors, loan offers, and charitable scams. Steps you can take include:

  • Contacting FEMA: After a humanitarian crisis, scammers may falsely represent themselves as FEMA agents. These scammers may contact you online or via a phone call. If you haven’t filled out a FEMA application for disaster relief, you won’t be contacted by the organization. FEMA will never contact you to ask you for your confidential information. If you are contacted by a FEMA scammer, you can call the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362. (These suggestions are for any contact from someone claiming to represent the federal government.)
  • Don’t open suspicious emails. If you receive an email from an unknown organization with a vaguely charitable name, delete it without opening. This could be a phishing or a vishing scheme to steal your identity or personal information, and could even infect your operating system with malware.
  • Don’t click on links from suspicious websites. If you see a social media post from an unknown charitable organization, even if their message seems fantastic, don’t click on the site until you’ve researched the organization. A quick Google search should reveal whether or not the charity is reputable.  

How What is My IP Address can help

As long as there are humanitarian crises, online scammers will continue to take advantage of them. However, new technologies are always in development that can help you keep your vital information safe. 

At What is My IP Address, we’re passionate about giving you tools and vital information to help protect your online security. Check out our blog for news and tips that can go a long way to give you peace of mind when you’re online. 

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