Social networks have sprung into action in the wake of a devastating earthquake that has shattered Chile’s infrastructure, left hundreds dead and spawned tsunami warnings across the Pacific basin. But where there’s tragedy, there are inevitably scam artists and spammers looking to cash in.
The quake, which struck Saturday morning off the coast near Concepcion, measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, approximately 800 times more powerful than the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 in Haiti, according to CNN. The Haiti quake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. (An increase of 1.0 on the scale equates to a 32-times increase in power.)
Reaction from the social networking world was swift:
* On Twitter, microbloggers used the hash tags #chile and #tsunami to track aftershocks, the death toll and emerging tsunami warnings. SOS messages from inside Chile were retweeted, as were tweets from frantic relatives looking for information on loved ones in the quake zone. Twitter lists #terremotochile and #fuerzachile (the latter named for President Michelle Bacelet’s message of strength to the Chilean people) have served as central repositories of information and connections.
* Two major search-and-rescue lists — Ayudeomos a Chile and Terremoto Chile — distributed by Twitter have spread to Facebook, blogs and media. Several groups on Facbook are providing up to the minute news on casualties and damage. Latin American journalist Aurelia Fierros, among others, has been reposting the lists across the Internet.
* Google Inc. has created the Chile Earthquake Person Finder, which allows relatives to upload photos and information about their relations in the country. Anyone whoo has been in contact with these people are encouraged to report.
Kathleen Sibley, a Toronto woman whose partner is a Chilean expatriate, said her family has used the Person Finder, but doesn’t hold out much hope for information while the country’s infrastructure is devastated.
“It’s a great idea in theory, but the reality is the people you want to be able to use it can’t, because they have no electricity or telecommunications,” she said in an e-mail interview.
Sibley’s relations are in Concepcion, a southern city of more than 200,000 near the epicentre. “It’s really difficult for people even from other parts of the country to go there or leave, because the roads are really bad. They’re destroyed in a lot of places, bridges have collapsed,” she wrote.
“Unless it’s someone in an official capacity with the ability to move around easily — the supply of gas in Concepcion is almost gone as well — and look for a list of people specifically, you’re not likely to get a response from someone using Person Finder. I don’t know if it has been of use to anyone else. I can see this being useful to aid workers, but there aren’t any there. It’s just the people and their collapsed or washed-away-by-the-sea houses. The destruction is beyond comprehension.”
But just as in the aftermath of the January earthquake in Haiti, online scam artists are taking advantage of the world’s concern for the Chilean people. CNN reports that Twitter links purporting to be images of the devastation are leading to malicious sites.
Dan Nowacinski, on Internet Security Examiner, advises surfers not to respond to unsolicited e-mail messages or click links within them, be skeptical of people representing themselves as survivors or officials, verify that non-profit organizations are legitimate and make contributions directly to known, trusted aid organizations. Don’t give personal or financial information to anyone soliciting a contribution, he adds.