Originally created 02/09/00

Charity watchdogs warn of potential for online fraud



NEW YORK -- Some questionable Web sites that have appeared since last week's Alaska Airlines crash have prompted charity watchdog groups to renew their warnings about the dangers of donating money over the Internet.

Although most online operations are legitimate, the ease of establishing Web sites raises the potential for fraud.

"Disasters bring out the worst in a few people and the best in most people," said Dan Langan, a spokesman for the National Charities Information Bureau. "You've got to give with your head and not with your heart. No matter how you might feel that you have to do something, you have to know exactly who you are giving to."

Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans said at least two sites that purportedly raised money for the victims' families are suspect because one distributed a computer virus and the other collected Social Security numbers. The sites shut down after the airline threatened to sue, Evans said.

Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific off Southern California on Jan. 31, killing all 88 people board. Two official funds have been set up for family members.

"Unfortunately there are people who prey on tragedy to make their living," Evans said. "In the online world, with a graphics program and a Web authoring tool, you can make Web sites look pretty efficacious and legitimate."

Donors can go online in many ways for many causes. Some sites, such as iGive.com, operate virtual shopping malls that promise to donate a percentage of online sales. Other sites, such as the American Red Cross, permit direct donations online.

Would-be donors should ask lots of questions about how donations will be spent, said Bennett Weiner, a vice president at the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Even if legitimate, some charities might spend too much on overhead or salaries.

Help is available online. Sites such as guidestar.org offer the reports that many charities must file with the government.

The Better Business Bureau's Web site is www.bbb.org. The National Charities Information Bureau is at www.give.org. Information on Alaska Airlines funds is at www.alaskaair.com.