Scam warning: Gaza crisis appeals used to trick victims

Experts have uncovered $1.6m of fraudulent payments linked to the Israel-Gaza conflict as part of a rise in cryptocurrency scams. Yahoo reports on how to avoid them

RAFAH, GAZA - OCTOBER 31: A view of the scene after an Israeli airstrike caused destruction in Rafah, Gaza on October 31, 2023. A building belonging to the Palestinian Az-Zahhar family was completely destroyed. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images)
The aftermath of an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip (Getty Images)

What's happening? Harrowing accounts from those caught up in the Israel-Gaza conflict have prompted many in the UK and elsewhere to ask themselves: "What can I do to help?"

Since the escalation of the crisis, charities such as the British Red Cross, Oxfam and Unicef have launched appeals to help Palestinians in desperate need of food, water and medicine.

Many Israelis are also still reeling from the brutal, surprise attack by Hamas on 7 October, which saw 1,400 people killed – one of the deadliest incursions on the Jewish state since the 1973 Yom Kippur war – with militants taking at least 220 hostages.

The sheer scale of human suffering is evident and, unfortunately, cybercriminals know this and are taking advantage of people's kindness.

Here, Yahoo News speaks to cybercrime disruption company Netcraft about its investigation into fraudulent donation appeals, the rise of "crypto draining", and how to stay safe online.

'Criminals want you to react quickly'
Spot the difference: The genuine on the left, and the scam page impersonating it plakaliklar[.]com/pcrf/ on the right (Netcraft)

Scam artists often pounce on major news events, whether it's the Ukraine war or the Israel-Gaza conflict, because it's something that's already in the target's mind says Robert Duncan, vice-president of product strategy for Netcraft.

"Attackers want you to react now" he says, suggesting people may be more likely to hand over their money quickly if a humanitarian crisis is already unfolding.

"These current affairs are really good for the criminals because they give that time pressure," he adds.

Scams uncovered by Duncan include fraudulent emails, potentially sent out en masse to hundreds of thousands of people, distributing links to bogus websites that are made to look like legitimate charities.

The emails are headed with emotive calls to action such as “Your Chance to Support Israel”, “Support the Heart of Israel – Donate Now”, “Gaza children appeal for your support” and “Bring hope to Palestinian families”.

These emails link to websites, often mimicking legitimate organisations, and prompt users to part with their money. Many fraudsters were tweaking the language in their emails in order to bypass spam filters.

In previous cases, Duncan says he's come across scammers who include loads of "benign text" in white at the very bottom of the email to trick spam filters into thinking it's legitimate.

'Rise of the crypto drainers'
An example of the emails uncovered during Netcraft's investigation (Netcraft)

Scam artists are increasingly moving towards soliciting fraudulent payments in cryptocurrency, says Duncan, who uncovered over $1.6m (£1.3m) of these transactions in relation to the Israel-Gaza conflict.

This might seem strange at first, after all, many people don't know how to use cryptocurrency, but it's also a useful tool for criminals who want to launder their money and stay under the radar.

"The cryptocurrency space is ideal for criminals, because once a transaction's been made, it's effectively irreversible. Even if the victim realises 10 seconds after they've done it, it's impossible to get the money back. There's no party they can go to.

"It does obviously limit the target market, so the number of people that can easily donate to them this way is way smaller than you might imagine.

"If you were using credit cards or bank transfers, you might get $1.6m pretty quickly, but you could also get stopped pretty quickly, because banks are looking for suspicious transactions and are going to spot weird behaviour."

Duncan doesn't think this means the end of traditional scamming using government-backed fiat currencies such as sterling, and some of the sites he came across did have a "pay by credit card" option. Either way, he says the basic principles used to trick people remain the same.

'Be sceptical'
Some pages found by Netcraft also included options to pay by credit card (Netcraft)

One of the key pieces of advice Duncan gives it to "be sceptical about anything that you receive that's unsolicited".

"It's very easy to be tricked into thinking you're visiting in a legitimate site, whereas if you've gone the other way - if you started with a goal of finding an organisation to donate to, you're much more likely to be successful in donating to your intended cause," he says.

"The best practice is to look through a separate mechanism. So, for example, if you received an email, you might then want to do a separate web search for the charity you intend to donate to.

"Then you can do some comparison between the two to see if you really did receive an email from that entity."

Read more: How To Protect Your Cash From These Common Scams (Go Banking Rates)

How to make donations safely

GAZA, PALESTINE - 2023/10/21: A Palestinian worker from UN receives the humanitarian aid brought by first convoy of relief trucks from Egyptian side, at Rafah border. United Nations (UN) agences are expected to deliver humanitarian aid to those in need in various areas of the Gaza Strip, Gaza government media office said on Saturday. (Photo by Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A Palestinian worker from UN receives aid brought by first convoy of relief trucks from Egyptian side (Getty Images)

The UK government recommends that people who want to help Gazans should donate to either the British Red Cross or the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), many of whose aid workers are displaced themselves but are still working every day.

However, there are a number of other trusted charities to choose from if you had another organisation in mind, although you should make a few checks before giving away your money.

  • Search the charity you're considering on the UK's charity register to check its name and registration number. Most charities with an income of £5,000 or more must be registered, which means they are regulated by The Charity Commission.

  • Do your homework, and make sure the charity if genuine before giving them any financial information

  • If in doubt go directly to the charity for more information. A legitimate organisation should be more than happy to answer your questions

You can also check the Fundraising Regulator’s online directory to see if a charity has committed to good fundraising practice.

Some more dangers to look out for

Egyptian Red Crescent members coordinate aid for Gaza, after United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, at Al Arish Airport, Egypt, October 20, 2023. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Egyptian Red Crescent members coordinate aid for Gaza (Reuters)
  • Action Fraud warns that fundraising appeals with generic wording, such as "to help people with COVID-19" should be approached with caution, as appeals should be clear on what money will be used for

  • Don’t click on the links or attachments in suspicious emails

  • Never respond to unsolicited messages or calls that ask for your personal or financial details

  • Beware of any online advertisements that just feature a mobile number

  • Ignore requests to donate through a money transfer company as this is a popular scam.

  • Only donate to online fundraising pages created by a person or organisation you know and trust. If in any doubt, contact the charity directly.

After making these checks, if you think that a fundraising appeal is fake, report it to Action Fraud online, or for those in Scotland, call 101.

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