Scammers preying on Notre Dame donors, security experts warn

By Megan Cerullo

/ MoneyWatch

France vows to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral

The ashes have not yet cooled and global scam artists are already preying on donors who have pledged nearly $1 billion to restore the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, after a fire Monday ravaged the historic structure, toppling its iconic spire and damaging centuries-old works of art.

Many online fundraisers, of course, are legitimate, but for almost every authentic effort to raise money for the cathedral's restoration, there's a crook seeking to capitalize on the mass devastation. And so security experts and nonprofits alike are issuing warnings to those who wish to contribute to this — or any — charitable cause.

"These kinds of scams are proliferating globally," said Alan Brill, a cyber risk expert at Kroll, a global consulting firm. "And the thing that's so depressing is the scammers are so good at taking advantage of tragedy that they have a playbook," he added, pointing to a page on fundraising site justgiving.org that he suspects is phony.

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Reads the anonymous user's plea: "I am doing this in response to the Notre Dame Fire for Friends of Notre-Dame De Paris Inc. because I want to support and help Notre Dame."

Is it possible to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral after devastating fire?

There are no measures in place that prevent bad actors from soliciting donations for phony causes online. "The nature of the internet is such that bad people can set these sites up within minutes. They can grab photos and videos from news sites anywhere and create a very convincing site and they can lie," Brill said.

The Better Business Bureau also issued a warning to do-gooders, urging them to "wait to donate" until an official rebuilding fund is established "to make sure donations are going to the official Notre Dame rebuilding fund and not into the hands of scammers."

Beware these three types of scams

There are three different kinds of scams that tend to crop up in concert with headline-grabbing events like Monday's fire. Some fraudsters plant bogus links to unrelated sites in the comments sections of social media posts about the tragedy and are paid for "click-throughs."

"They are stealing your click to earn money from your activity," Brill explained. The second, more dangerous type of fraud takes place on sites that purport to raise money for charity, but are really designed to obtain unsuspecting individuals' personal credit card information. Other scammers operate by creating links that ultimately direct people to a legitimate, charitable site, but are used to intercept and steal personal information.

"They know how to get the URL, they know how to set up the website, and they use that website to do anything from stealing your money and your credit card information to delivering malware to turn your machine into a zombie to access whatever they want," Brill said.

Simply put, they are ready to pounce. Not to worry, though, Brill notes that these kinds of attacks are largely avoidable, as long as you think before you click.

Red flags on websites

Sites that aren't linked to an existing entity, and are established by anonymous creators — like the justgiving.org campaign — should be considered highly suspicious, Brill said.

The site's low fundraising goal is also a tip-off that it's a scam, according to Brill. "The fact that it was set with a target of £200 is suspicious — because that's not going to do a lot," he said. "I don't know who did this because it's anonymous, but I am pretty sure that for a tragedy of this nature, I don't really want to trust anonymous sources," he said.

Bogus sites are often riddled with misspellings and load slowly, because their code contains errors. "When they're imperfect, that's a giveaway," he said.

Significance of Notre Dame Cathedral dating back to 1163

Brill was clear that this shouldn't dissuade people from contributing to the cause, they should just think twice before clicking on a link that appears to be a convenient way to give.

"We don't want people to be scammed and we don't want funds that should be going to a wonderful cause to go into the pocket of some scam artist," he said.

Wait to donate

The Better Business Bureau encourages donors to wait until an official fund is created to start emptying their pockets. The French government has indicated that it will establish two funds, one for French donations and the other for international donations.

"We really want to make sure consumers are donating to a legitimate charity and we expect there to be a lot of postings on crowdfunding sites and social media and those funds won't go where they need to go," said BBB communications manager Luke Frey.

He also cautioned about contributing to funds whose names resemble those of legitimate organizations but are off by a word or too. "Scammers will create similar-looking organizations that are off by a word or two so it's always best to make sure you are checking the URL to make sure you are on the site of the organization you think it is," he said.

In the meantime, the French Ministry of Culture has identified four reputable organizations that have launched fundraisers for the cathedral's reconstruction, including la Fondation du Patrimoine, la Fondation de France, la Fondation Notre-Dame, and le Centre des monuments nationaux.

In the U.S., a spokesperson for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America, told CBS News the institution felt compelled to help its "sister church in Paris" by launching a fundraising campaign that so far has raised about $25,000 to directly help rebuild the storied cathedral.

First published on April 18, 2019 / 11:04 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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