Avoid Iraqi cons online

While the war in Iraq is unprecedented in supporting timely reports from the front lines, much of the online activity surrounding the conflict has a familiar tone. Besides the expected digital humor and free expression, pervasive scam artists are seizing the opportunity to cadge money from unwitting patriots.

"The only thing that makes it worse is that they are preying on something that people fundamentally feel should not be preyed upon," said Audri Lanford, who runs Internet ScamBusters, which debunks digital hoaxes. "But I guess you could say the same thing about schemes that prey on the elderly."

Shift in Tone

Familiar mass mailings have taken on a Mideast flavor. Consider the electronic petitions (pro-Bush or anti-war), or messages urging recipients to send the President a small bag of rice and Biblical message to feed one's enemies in the name of peace (the White House did not respond to a query about how much rice has been received).

Humor also abounds. Making the rounds is a good news/bad news joke about a meeting of Saddam's doubles, where it is announced that the Iraqi leader had lost his arm. Another compares the Vietnam War with the current situation in the form of a pre-flight checklist: "Cabal of oldsters who won't listen to outside advice? Check. Corrupt Texan in the WH? Check. France secretly hoping we fall on our asses? Check. Vietnam 2, you are cleared to taxi."

Speaking of France, anti-France humor has been crossing the Internet for weeks, sometimes uncovering inside jokes. For example, until the word spread, searching Google for "French military victories" came up blank. A more recent jab at alleged allies is this quickie: "Poland announced it has sent troops to the Gulf to help the coalition forces.... Mexico has no idea what to do with them."

Iraq Scams Surface

Much less lighthearted than the digital humor, online scams involving Iraq are designed to capitalize on patriotic feelings that have emerged during the current conflict. Some might argue it's the extreme scammer who takes advantage of current events to cheat others, but the senders are probably no worse (or no better) than the scam artists who insinuate themselves into our in-boxes each day.

For instance, a variation of the familiar Nigerian Scam 419 has quickly surfaced. That e-mail hoax, which has been making the rounds for years, involves an alleged plea for assistance getting cash out of a country under siege--for a generous cut.

In the updated version, we have Eng Farouk Al-Bashar, allegedly the oldest son of an oil-rich Iraqi family. He writes to ask for our help in the transportation of $12.5 million in cash from a Baghdad vault. For your trouble you get 10 percent, or a negotiated amount.

It's now common knowledge that these scams are the basis for identity theft, bank fraud and even kidnapping. But a naive recipient who has not heard about this fraud may fall for it (although the line about "there is no avenue to transfer any amount from Iraq without Saddam knowing" will probably be revised by the next mailing).

Crafting old scams to current events is not new, hoax-watchers say. ScamBusters recalls two primary types of scams after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: aid requests for rescue workers and for civilians. Digital opportunists were quick to urge contributions--but not always to the source the givers intended.

Since spammers are too lazy to vary their pitch, just change "rescue workers" to "American soldiers," and "civilians" to "refugees," and you have a pretty good picture of scams centered on the Iraqi situation.

ScamBusters recommends the following, in times or war or peace: If you want to donate to a bona fide organization, go directly to its home page to donate. Links in scam charity e-mails ensure that you are paying the scammers, not the charities. And never donate based on an unsolicited e-mail. Always give to a trusted charity.

Other E-Hazards and Cons

Distributors of e-mail worms are also exploiting the Iraqi situation by putting a war reference in the subject line, some antivirus product vendors warn. For example, anyone receiving an attachment that promises a patriotic message or a George Bush animation may send the W32/Ganda-A worm to everyone in their address book. Iraq also inspired virus writers last December, when an innocuous worm used Iraq_oil as one of its several names.

Each cataclysmic world event seems to spawn its own urban legend. Lycos reports that the first urban legend to come out of the war in Iraq may be about the camel spider.

Recently, e-mail circulated stating that troops are encountering these amazing creatures, who purportedly run at speeds of 25 miles per hour and climb onto the bellies of camels and eat their stomachs from the outside, numbing the flesh by secreting a natural anesthetic. As the story goes, the creatures were even attacking our soldiers at night, many of whom awoke to find missing flesh

A search for "camel spider" describes an animal that is somewhat more benign, along with a story from Air Force Link that seeks to correct the Internet-borne misconceptions. The Air Force story, however, contains some legend-creating facts: The little beast is a cross between a spider and a scorpion. And "chemicals such as bug sprays are not recommended as they most likely will do nothing but make the spider angry."

The perpetuation of these scams and legends underscores that the public remains unable to grasp some obvious truths: You shouldn't believe everything you read, and no one will give you money for nothing.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation reports Internet fraud has tripled in the past year. ScamBusters' Lanford, pointing out that the Nigerian scam takes in about $200 million a year, maintains it's a matter of education--"which is why we run ScamBusters as a public service," she notes.

"The Internet is still growing, so there will always be new people to scam," Lanford adds.

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