x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Gustav brings not only rains but fraud

A surge of phoney internet registrations has followed in the storm's wake.

Along with gale-force winds and the evacuation of New Orleans, Hurricane Gustav has brought with it a surge in phoney internet domain registrations, as fraudsters look to capitalise on possible disaster. More than 150 website addresses naming the hurricane, such as gustavvolunteers.com, have been registered since Saturday. Although some redirect visitors to the sites of legitimate charities, the majority feature "for sale" signs, which internet security professionals say are likely to be purchased by fraudsters.

The office of the governor-general of Louisiana, one of the states likely to be hit hardest by the hurricane, has warned citizens that bogus charities, chain emails and fraudulent websites were looking to take advantage of the situation. Internet sites claiming to be charities are soliciting donations and harvesting credit card and personal information, while others are simply looking to gain valid email addresses to be sold on to spam advertisers.

Emails claiming to come from banks are even telling customers they must provide their account information for "confirmation" purposes before leaving their homes as part of evacuation efforts. And by yesterday, website addresses like helpgustavvictims.com were being resold on the auction website eBay. A similar wave of internet-based frauds accompanied Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the aftermath of the disaster, the US Department of Justice established a special task force to combat fraud targeting victims and donors; hundreds of people have been charged with crimes following its investigations.

Internet security systems have tightened considerably in recent years, with hardware makers and software vendors developing safer systems and end users showing greater vigilance. The result has been a slowing in returns for traditional spammers and virus makers. According to a report by the computer security firm Trend Micro, this has pushed internet-based fraudsters to refine their act, evolving to a more "social" model for online fraud.

New swindles see victims invited to take part by what appears to be their friends messaging them from social networking sites like Facebook. Some include phone numbers to dial, where human operators continue to act out the deception, gathering credit card and personal information. Cyber criminals are also targeting more lucrative niche markets, like top-level business executives, the report said.

Requiring a more customised, personal approach than the average user, such targets can often yield more valuable information, like access to corporate bank accounts and companywide email distribution lists.