BOSTON (TheStreet) — When a massive earthquake rocked Haiti this week, leveling the capital city of Port-au-Prince and leaving tens of thousands dead, relief agencies acted quickly.
So did the con men.
A warning released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday urges the well-intentioned "to apply a critical eye" before responding to requests for relief-related donations. A similar warning from the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance compares the likely emergence of Haitian relief scams to similar e-mail schemes that emerged following the deadly tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Man-made disasters offered more opportunities for Internet fraudsters than Mother Nature last year.
"Some scams were distinct in 2009 because of the economic climate and scammers' penchant for taking advantage of the top headlines," says Steve Cox, chief executive officer of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. "In places particularly hit by the housing crisis, bogus offers for foreclosure rescue or debt assistance ran rampant."
As one spamming strategy ceases to be effective, new tricks of the trade emerge to take its place. Nigerian scammers have been replaced by acai berry claims and fake auctions. Facebook fraud has supplemented phony lotteries and Ponzi schemes.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, received 275,284 complaints in 2008, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available. The total dollar loss from these reported cases was $264.6 million.
Earlier this month, the Wise Giving Alliance released a list of its top reported rip-offs in 2009. Scurrilous "free-trial" offers were especially widespread last year.
Ads offering samples of tooth whiteners and acai berry-based supplements were especially ubiquitous, popping up on mainstream Web sites. Aside from the dubious claims about such products, anyone who requests a free sample usually finds they've been duped into paying more than $80 a month for recurring shipments.