Fraudsters try to tap into relief funds for tsunami victims

Disaster aftermath Internet donations and benefit concerts targeted by profiteers
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The Independent Online
Six weeks after the tsunami struck 11 Asian and African countries, killing more than 300,000 people and releasing an outpouring of global compassion, a crime wave has followed in its wake.

Con artists have devised more than 170 fraudulent internet donation sites, including a plausible mock-up of Britain's official Disasters Emergency Committee web page. Scotland Yard shut this site down on Friday, and the DEC is demanding that any proceeds be handed over to the victims of the tidal wave.

But profiteers continue to get rich from the world-wide sympathy. A Canadian art student attempted to sell the domain name "tsunamirelief. com" on eBay for $50,000. Scalpers sold tickets for tsunami benefit concerts for four times the face value and pocketed the profits.

A rush of cyber-scams, based on the familiar Nigerian advance-fees fraud, have circulated widely since Boxing Day. Fraudsters have even targeted the families of tourists feared dead in the disaster by using contact information on missing posters and posing as "special investigators" who offer to locate loved ones.

The unprecedented surge of generosity caused one charitable fund in Bangkok to close its accounts, fearing that criminals were laundering money through them.

Meanwhile, though hundreds of bodies are still being retrieved daily in Indonesia's Aceh province at the heart of the quake zone, emergency relief efforts by the US military are being wound down. A senior commander said the US military could complete operations in Indonesia a month ahead of Jakarta's timetable for foreign forces to leave the disaster zone.

US ships are pulling out of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where long-term reconstruction plans will be tackled by civilians and relief agencies.

The United Nations is hiring 30,000 jobless Indonesians to help dig through the detritus as part of its short-term "Cash for Work" programme. President George Bush will dispatch his father, George Bush Sr, and fellow former president Bill Clinton to tour the worst-affected zones later this month.

Conflicting agendas are being played out on Asia's devastated shorelines, including the overtly political. Victims in Thailand, which goes to the polls today in a national election that the incumbent Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is expected to win, have been courted in their temporary shelters by promises of compensation from the ruling Thai Rak Thai Party.

Aid workers are complaining that the red tape associated with conducting the election and counting the votes is hindering relief from reaching marginalised communities, and that local authorities will be saddled with the expense of transporting displaced voters to the polls, since political parties are banned from doing so.

At least two million people need food and five million require shelter in Asia and Africa, and relief agencies are striving to buy goods directly from countries hit by the disaster.

"All agencies involved should source locally as much as possible," said an Oxfam spokeswoman. "It's better for the local economy and reaches people much sooner."

But some of the billions pledged to help tsunami victims is destined to return to the coffers of rich donor countries as payment for goods.

The prospect of firm contracts for large-scale rebuilding has lifted shares in cement and engineering firms - and even noodle manufacturers - in some of the worst-hit countries. This demand has helped to make Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka the best-performing markets in Asia this year.

Despite the influx of donations, aid can be excruciatingly slow to arrive. Sri Lankan officials have been criticised for bureaucratic delays in assisting up to 70 per cent of the country's victims. In southern India, where foreign aid has been spurned, the situation is especially dire.

"A family of five is given one toothbrush, which is used by all the members, one after another, with one bit of toothpaste used stingily," wrote Medha Patkar, a social activist, in a letter to Kerala's chief minister berating him for the inadequacy of the relief effort.

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