Gustav threat unleashes hundreds of “relief” scams

Nearly 100 domains related to Hurricane Gustav have been registered in the past 48 hours, security experts said Sunday, some of which may be used by bogus charity and relief scams after the storm strikes the U.S. Gulf Coast.

According to television station KTAL in Shreveport, La., the office of Louisiana’s Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has warned residents of Gustav phishing attacks already in progress.

On Saturday, Marcus Sachs, the director of the SANS Institute’s Internet Storm Center (ISC), noted that numerous domains containing the word “gustav,” “charity,” “hurricane,” and “relief” had been recently registered.

“On the day [Hurricane] Katrina hit New Orleans [in 2005] hundreds of donation sites appeared online, many if not most were scam sites,” said Sachs in a post yesterday to the ISC research blog. “Well this time around it looks like the people who like to register domain names in anticipation of a storm’s arrival have already started registering them for Gustav.”

By Sunday, Sachs had listed almost 100 Gustav sites culled from the DomainTools’ Web site. “Most of these sites are parked domains and many of them are for sale,” he said. “They will be worth monitoring, particularly if ‘donate here’ messages appear.”

Several of the domains, in fact, do appear to be parked, or registered but not fleshed out with content. Others, including and, were for sale on eBay as of mid-day Sunday.

A few, however, led to legitimate charities. The domain, for example, redirected users to the Web site of the evangelical Christian organization “Samaritan’s Purse,” while took users to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s site.

Another security expert, Gary Warner, director of research in computer forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also posted a list of parked domains that may be used for scamming purposes.

“Anytime we’ve seen a natural disaster, we’ve been on the lookup for domains which might be abused for fraud,” said Warner Sunday on his blog. “It was only natural then that I retuned my settings at DomainTools yesterday to alert on Gustav domains.”
Warner also pointed out a handful of domains that led to legitimate content.

Three years ago, before and after Hurricanes Katrina slammed into New Orleans, security researchers noted a similar run-up of domain registrations. Enough were used for phony relief scams, often by identity thieves hoping to trick consumers into divulging personal information, that the U.S. Department of Justice set up a Katrina anti-fraud task force.

More than a year later, two brothers were convicted on federal charges for running a fake Salvation Army site that solicited money, supposedly for Katrina relief efforts.

The pair, Steven and Bartholomew Stephens, were sentenced to more than 100 months in prison for the scam last December.

How cell operators are preparing

Meanwhile, major cellular network providers in the U.S. say they are prepared, having learned from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

U.S.-base carriers Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. separately issued statements this week saying they each have spent about $140 million in the Gulf states in the aftermath of Katrina. A spokesman said AT&T Inc. has spent “hundreds of millions” in the region on both wired and wireless infrastructure.

The spending was on many areas of emergency management, including the building of new digital cell sites. But a big focus, Sprint said in a statement, has been on maintaining power to cellular operations with various forms of power generators.

“One of the primary reasons for the loss of wireless service in a hurricane is the loss of commercial power to the cell site,” Sprint said.

In 2007, the company spent nearly $60 million on construction of permanent generators at 1,300 locations in the Gulf Coast region to power critical wireless locations and network facilities, as well as for portable generators and cell sites on wheels.

If power goes out to a cell site or a group of cell sites, such equipment can provide a backup.

Sprint also said it has invested $27 million to expand its emergency response team to aid first responders such as police officers and firefighters. That group is deploying proprietary technology in the region, called Satellite Cell on Light Trucks, to improve communications among emergency responders.

A major concern during Katrina was that emergency personnel could not communicate with one another because of radios running different frequencies or different protocols.

Sprint and Verizon said they have disaster-response vehicles at the ready. Verizon said it has a new 35-foot trailer devoted to emergency response in the region and has added 59 new digital sites, most with their own on-site generators.

AT&T is already activating plans to set up base camps with tents and bathrooms for its Texas-based repair workers to be located at the best spot when Gustav’s eventual track becomes clearer.

Dan Feldstein, an AT&T spokesman based in Houston, said the carrier has already responded to two hurricanes earlier this season, Dolly and Edouard, and he feels better prepared as a result.

“Neither caused terrible damage, but they were serious, and our crews got a good workout,” Feldstein said in a telephone interview. “The crews got in fast with generators, and it was very impressive. Every storm that happens, including Katrina, presents lessons to be learned.”

One tip: Use text instead of voice

All the cellular providers offered tips to users in the event a storm hits and wireless networks become congested, as they did with Katrina. One of the common tips was to urge users to send text instead of using voice if a crisis occurs, since text places less demand on the network.

For land-line users, Feldstein said to remember that a cordless phone in the house might not work without power, so might be time to pull out an old conventional phone to load into the phone jack directly, since some power is transmitted over the phone line.

Other tips include carrying extra batteries for cell phones and to use an adapter for recharging the phone battery in a car.

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