Sickening Sandy Domain Scams

 

Lives were tragically lost in Hurricane Sandy, with many additional victims sustaining acute physical injuries. Power remains out in many storm-affected areas as temperatures skew colder. Thousands of homes have been destroyed or badly damaged, and businesses have been shuttered and laid off workers, as public officials scramble to find adequate alternative shelter for the homeless and coordinate relief efforts. The rebuilding effort will take months, and in some cases years.

And yet, as with far too many natural disasters, a small group of insensitive individuals have sought to make personal profit out of human tragedy, with some going so far as engaging in criminal fraud to divert charitable contributions away from their intended recipients. Unfortunately, some of these scams involve domain registration and use abuse, and aside from being dead wrong and illegal they carry the risk of giving all legitimate domain investors a bad name through mistaken guilt-by-association. CNN recently ran a news feature casting a spotlight on these Sandy-associated scams — Charity scams claim to aid Sandy victims .

ICA condemns these despicable actions. Our Code of Conduct – http://internetcommerce.org/member_code_of_conduct — adopted shortly after the Association’s founding six years ago, clearly states that, A registrant should not intentionally register a domain name related to a current or historical event involving human suffering or tragedy where the primary purpose of such registration is commercial profit.” Our COC also calls on domain registrants to “provide accurate domain name ownership and contact information to the WHOIS database in a timely manner so that domain name ownership is transparent” and also declares, “A registrant’s usage of domain names shall follow applicable laws and regulations and a registrant shall not use domain names for unlawful purposes.” Phony “pop-up charities” fail all these standards, especially the test of legality.

Of course, condemning bad acts is easier than stopping them. It amazes us that individuals will make charitable gifts based solely upon receipt of an unsolicited e-mail or happening across a website for an unfamiliar “charity”, yet the Better Business Bureau (BBB) estimates that more than two-thirds of charitable contributors don’t bother to check out a recipient charity’s bona fides. The first step in any anti-scam effort has to be greater public education and awareness so that those with the noble intent of aiding victims don’t become victims themselves. BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance — http://www.bbb.org/us/Wise-Giving/ — provides guidance for individuals wanting to make that check, and also sets high standards for organizations that seek public contributions.

Public education, while necessary, is insufficient. A few high-profile law enforcement prosecutions of fake charity scammers might have laudable deterrent impact – although that’s not a simple task, as scammers can be located anywhere on the globe. VISA, MasterCard, PayPal, and other major payment processors also have a role to play, as these scams all rely on credit and debit charges for their ill-gotten gains.  And perhaps leading domain registrars, in conjunction with ICANN’s Registrar Stakeholder Group, could focus some attention on the problem and see if there are reasonable means by which suspicious domain registrations made in the days leading up to a natural disaster or its immediate aftermath can receive extra scrutiny. People have all sorts of reasons for registering name-related domains, so it would be difficult to impossible to give heightened scrutiny to all domain registrations that incorporate the official storm names released by the National Hurricane Center years in advance (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutnames.shtml). But surely registrations of Sandy-related domains made in the few days leading up to and after landfall should have invited raised eyebrows. ICA would be happy to engage in any discussion of how the broad domain-related community can best address these scams – natural disasters are inevitable, but disaster-related scams are unacceptable.

For those in the domain community wishing to provide legitimate aid to Sandy’s victims, one option is the special Sandy campaign designated by the NY Time’s Neediest Cases Fund, which distributes contributions among ten legitimate social services agencies operating through the storm-affected area (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/08/nyregion/special-campaign-is-established-for-hurricane-sandys-victims.html).  The American Red Cross has taken a lead role in providing assistance to Sandy’s victims and is a worthy recipient (http://newsroom.redcross.org/category/disaster-relief-operation/hurricane-season-2012/hurricane-sandy/). And CNN provides this guidance on how to target Sandy relief through listed charitable organizations to both US victims and those in the Caribbean who were ravaged by the storm before it slammed into the East Coast (http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/30/us/iyw-how-to-help-after-sandy/index.html).

These are by no means the only giving options, as any quick Internet search will reveal. But whatever means of giving you may select, take a few minutes to be sure that your charity of choice is bona fide – in that regard, the BBB provides this list of Dos and Don’ts to make sure that dollars meant for victims don’t line the pockets of fake charity scam artists (http://www.bbb.org/blog/2012/11/will-sandy-bring-a-hurricane-of-charitable-donations/).

Let’s all do what we can to make sure that aid intended for Sandy’s victims reaches them, and to find better means to reduce  disaster-related Internet scams in the future.

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