April 22, 2024

Scammers are using the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria to try to trick people into donating to fake causes, security experts have warned.

These scams claim to raise money for survivors, left without heat or water following the disasters that have killed more than 35,000 people.

But instead of helping those in need, scammers are channelling donations away from real charities, and into their own PayPal accounts and cryptocurrency wallets.

We’ve identified some of the main methods used by scammers, and tools you can use to double check before donating.

On TikTok Live, content creators can make money by receiving digital gifts. Now, TikTok accounts are posting photos of devastation, looped footage and recordings of TVs showing rescue efforts, whilst asking for donations.

Captions include phrases like “Let’s help Turkey”, “Pray for Turkey” and “Donate for earthquake victims”.

One account, which was live for over three hours, showed a pixelated aerial image of destroyed buildings, accompanied by sound effects of explosions. Off-camera, a male voice laughs and speaks in Chinese. The video’s caption is “Let’s help Turkey. Donation”.

TikTok screenshot
Image caption,

TikTok livestreams show photos with sound effects and ask for donations

Another video shows a picture of a distressed child running from an explosion. The livestream host’s message is “Please help achieve this goal”- an apparent plea for TikTok gifts.

But the photo of the child is not from last week’s earthquakes. A reverse image search found the same image had been posted on Twitter in 2018 with the caption “Stop Afrin Genocide”, referring to a city in north-western Syria where Turkish forces and their allies in the Syrian opposition ousted a Kurdish militia in that year.

Photo of a child running from an explosionIMAGE SOURCE,UGC
Image caption,

An old photo is used to ask for donations on TikTok

Another word of caution about gifting on TikTok: a BBC investigation found TikTok takes up to 70% of the proceeds of digital gifts, although TikTok says it takes less than that.

A TikTok spokesperson told the BBC: “We are deeply saddened by the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria and are contributing to aid earthquake relief efforts. “We’re also actively working to prevent people from scamming and misleading community members who want to help.”

On Twitter, people are sharing emotive images alongside links to cryptocurrency wallets asking for donations.

One account posted the same appeal eight times in 12 hours, with an image of a firefighter holding a small child amid collapsed buildings.

A Twitter appealIMAGE SOURCE,UGC

The picture used, however, is not real. Greek newspaper OEMA reports that it was created by the Major General of the Aegean fire brigade Panagiotis Kotridis using Artificial Intelligence software Midjourney.

AI image generators often make mistakes, and Twitter users were quick to spot that this firefighter has six digits on his right hand. To verify this further, we asked colleagues from the BBC’s tech research hub the Blue Room to try to generate similar images using the same software.

They asked the software for an “image of firefighter in aftermath of an earthquake rescuing young child and wearing helmet with Greek flag”, and were given these options:

AI generated images of a firefighter rescuing a young childIMAGE SOURCE,MIDJOURNEY
Image caption,

AI generated images of a firefighter rescuing a young child

Furthermore, one of the crypto wallet addresses had been used in scam and spam tweets from 2018. The other address had been posted on Russian social media website VK alongside pornographic content.

When the BBC contacted the person tweeting the appeal, they denied it was a scam. They said they had poor connectivity, but answered our questions on Twitter using Google Translate.

“My aim is to be able to help people affected by the earthquake if I manage to raise funds”, they said. “Now people are cold in the disaster area, and especially babies do not have food. I can prove this process with receipts.”

However, they have not yet sent us receipts or proof of their identity.

Elsewhere on Twitter, scammers create fake fundraising accounts and post links to PayPal.

Ax Sharma, cyber security expert at Sonatype, says these accounts retweet news articles and reply to tweets by celebrities and businesses to gain visibility.

“They create fake disaster relief accounts that appear to be legitimate organisations or news outlets, but then drive funds to their own PayPal addresses,” he told the BBC.

Screenshot of a fraudulent Twitter account

One example is @TurkeyRelief, which joined Twitter in January, has just 31 followers, and touts for donations via PayPal. The PayPal account has so far received US$900 in donations. But that includes $500 from the creator of the page, who donated to their own cause. Mr Sharma says this is “to make the fundraiser appear authentic”.

PayPal appeal

It’s one of more than 100 fundraisers launched on PayPal in recent days asking for donations to support those affected by the earthquakes, some of which are fake.

Mr Sharma says donors should be especially wary of accounts that say they are in Turkey, because PayPal has not been operating in Turkey since 2016.

“There are real charities outside of Turkey using PayPal, but when these fundraisers say they’re in Turkey, that’s a red flag,” he says.

Other things to be vigilant of are anonymous donations and appeals that have raised small amounts. You would expect real charities to have “significant funds” according to Mr Sharma, yet many of the PayPal fundraisers have less than £100.

More than 100 fundraisers have launched on PayPal since the earthquakes struck
Image caption,

More than 100 fundraisers have launched on PayPal since the earthquakes struck, some of which are scams

PayPal has suspended the fraudulent account. A PayPal spokesperson told the BBC: “While the vast majority of people using PayPal to accept donations have the best intentions, there are inevitably some who attempt to prey on the charitable nature and generosity of others.

“PayPal teams are always working diligently to scrutinise and ban accounts, particularly in the wake of events like the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, so that donations go to intended causes.”

Twitter has also suspended @TurkeyRelief, but the company did not reply to requests for comment.


How to avoid scams and donate safely

  • Look up charities on your national charity register, such as the UK charity register or the IRS in the US
  • If you suspect a scam, report it to Action Fraud in the UK or the social media platform
  • Emotional language, photos and videos are used to pull at heart strings
  • Some scams say they’re affiliated with real charities or governments. If you want to donate to that charity or government organisation, look up their website and donate directly to them.


Source: By Hannah Gelbart
Global disinformation reporter

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