Editorial viewpoint: The vultures of tragedy

As I write this column, the Hurricane Katrina disaster is little more than a week old. And already, as is becoming commonplace with disasters, the basest inhabitants of the wired world have been quick off the mark to exploit the catastrophe.

A mere three days after Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, a widespread spam campaign was in full swing, offering “breaking news” of the catastrophe and containing a link to a Web site that would then attempt to infect the user’s computer with malware. Even worse, phishers quickly began spoofing the official Web site of the American Red Cross, hoping to misdirect donations for the relief of Katrina victims into their own pockets.

This latter scam is not new. Shortly after the Asian tsunami, phishers sent out e-mails in the guise of an appeal from Oxfam, attempting to get people to donate money into a phony bank account in Cyprus. The ploy was tried again after the London bombings, this time in the form of an appeal from a fake British Red Cross site.

The scammers also used the London bombings as a means of disseminating a trojan, contained in an e-mail purporting to be a CNN story on the terrorist attack. After secretly installing itself, the trojan then caused infected computers to send out junk mail.

9/11 spawned a number of hoaxes. One of the most widely reported seemed only intent on stoking the paranoia that followed the attack on the World Trade Center. It involved an e-mail that spread over the Internet within weeks of the disaster, warning people about a new virus that would remove all dynamic link library files from the user’s computer, effectively erasing the “C” drive. The virus was supposed to be contained in an e-mail entitled “WTC Survivor”. There was no such e-mail or virus.

For pure malevolence, however, it would be hard to sink lower than hoax perpetrator Christopher Pierson of Ruskington, Lincolnshire. He was sentenced to six months in jail for sending bogus e-mails to 35 people who used the Web site of British broadcaster Sky News to seek information on relatives missing in the Asian tsunami. Purporting to be a response from the “Foreign Office Bureau” in Thailand, Pierson’s e-mails falsely confirmed that the recipient’s missing loved one was dead.

Horrible as such catastrophes are, they never fail to bring us many striking and indelible examples of what is best and most noble in the human spirit. Sadly, they have also become feasting places for the vultures of the wired world, ever willing to debase themselves in the face of overwhelming human tragedy.


Related links:

Katrina aftermath: Beware of e-looters

Red Cross looks to IT for post-Katrina recovery

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