Criminal gangs have been cashing in on the Haiti earthquake by seeking funds for bogus charities via millions of spam e-mails, a BBC investigation has learned.
The Haiti earthquake led to millions of pounds being raised to help people with next to nothing who, literally overnight, found they had even less.
But alongside genuine appeals and donations, something more sinister started to emerge.
Within days, scam e-mails began appearing on the internet. Some had what looked like logos from genuine charities.
One said it was from the British Red Cross, but was traced to a computer in Nigeria; another used the Unicef logo, but was nothing to do with them.
Our investigation focused on two e-mails. One was from a charity called Help the World, which is not registered with the Charity Commission.
There was a mobile number on the e-mail which we rang. A man responded and told us how the funds they were raising were being used.
He told us: “We are repairing the centre of the disaster in Haiti. We focus on the schools in Haiti. We have to let the children have their future back, you know without education there’s no future.”
None of this was true. Scam e-mails tend to list only mobile numbers, which a bona fide charity would steer clear of.
We checked with the Charity Commission, who have no record of Help the World.
However, unusually for such e-mails, there was a London address which we checked out. It turned out to be a jazz and blues bar.
A second group we investigated called itself the M E Foundation and was also not registered with the Charity Commission.
In the e-mails, a Mr David Isco Iker was said to be running the charity. I asked him how they were getting their donations and what they were using the money for.
He said: “We get mostly phone donations... mostly for food, medical supplies.”
This was all also untrue. Unsolicited, the M E Foundation sent us photographs of the Haiti projects they said they were involved with.
One showed rows of white tents with a logo on each one. We discovered the camp belonged to the well established Cambridge-based charity, SOS Children.
Chief executive of SOS Children, Andrew Cates, told us the picture was one of theirs, cut and pasted from their website, and not from Haiti, but from the Pakistani earthquake a few years ago.
He said: “The problem is it’s not just about exploiting a donor or a charity, really they’re exploiting the victims. Because they’re taking money people want to give to the victims of these natural disasters and they’re stealing it.
“So I don’t feel that they’re robbing me, I feel that they’re taking from the mouths of children we’re trying to help and that is something which is very difficult not to get angry about.”
Research from the Office of Fair Trading shows that last year, around two million people were conned out of cash via scam e-mails of various kinds.
But given the scale and nature of the Haiti tragedy, there is something quite different about this cyber crime.
Richard Hurley from Cifas, the UK’s fraud prevention service, said: “They’re very sophisticated and with that sophistication goes a large level of a very insidious nature which deliberately preys on your feelings for those innocent victims and your desire to help them.
“So it’s making use of human suffering and the best in human nature at the same time simply for commercial profit.”
The evidence against the M E Foundation was piling up. Their listed address in London turned out to be a newsagents which had been there for 20 years.
The newsagent said he was offended to learn that people were stealing money from others and using his address as a cover.
The other address listed for the M E Foundation was in Malaga, so we went there to try to talk to the people involved. We told our contact in Spain we would send our donation for the charity via courier.
The address given to us was in a run-down area of Malaga, and our courier waited for the contact. It all happened in a flash.
Our courier spoke to the man, in Spanish, very briefly. He clearly identified himself as the man I had spoken to.
However, as soon as the BBC team appeared with a camera and a microphone, he fled, shedding his coat, flip flops, and fake ID.