Nat­u­ral Dis­as­ter Fraud

Nat­u­ral dis­as­ters can bring out the worst in a hand­ful of peo­ple.

Indonesia Expat - - NEWS - BY KEN­NETH YE­UNG

Af­ter the Septem­ber 28 earthquake and tsunami that killed an es­ti­mated 5,000 peo­ple in Cen­tral Su­lawesi and left about 70,000 home­less, ap­peals for fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance were widely dis­sem­i­nated via text mes­sages and so­cial me­dia. Not all were gen­uine.

One text mes­sage, sent from mul­ti­ple mo­bile phone num­bers, read, “Please help our fam­ily, vic­tims of the Palu-Dong­gala tsunami earthquake via BRI ac­count 780601004778535 in the name of Risa Ris­tianti, BRI branch Palu-Dong­gala.”

Most re­cip­i­ents of the mes­sage ig­nored it. Some trans­ferred money. And some were sus­pi­cious and con­tacted po­lice. Cy­ber-crime po­lice in­ves­ti­gated and tracked down the per­son be­hind the mes­sage. He was Mansur, a 41-year-old rice farmer from Am­par­ita, Sidrap re­gency, in the mid­dle of South Su­lawesi prov­ince.

When ar­rested at his house on Oc­to­ber 10, he con­fessed to not hav­ing any rel­a­tives in the dis­as­ter zone. He said tele­vi­sion news re­ports on aid flow­ing in for the tsunami vic­tims had in­spired him to send out his mes­sage seek­ing do­na­tions.

For a man pro­fess­ing to be an im­pov­er­ished farmer, he was pro­fes­sional in his ac­tions. First, he pur­chased an ATM card, per­sonal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber and sav­ings pass­book for Rp1.2 mil­lion (US$80) from a woman who held an ac­count with Bank Rakyat In­done­sia (BRI). Then he pur­chased 13 USB modems and sev­eral SIM cards.

Next, he down­loaded SMS Caster, an ap­pli­ca­tion used by spam­mers, fraud­sters and other nui­sances to send out thou­sands of text mes­sages to ran­dom mo­bile phone num­bers. He said he learned how to use the soft­ware af­ter watch­ing an on­line tu­to­rial on his lap­top.

Mansur said he had with­drawn Rp10 mil­lion (US$660) from the ac­count and used it to buy “rice and other daily needs” for his fam­ily. He claimed he was “forced” into fraud by eco­nomic ne­ces­sity be­cause his crops had failed for the

past two years. Po­lice said they were await­ing au­tho­ri­sa­tion to check pre­cisely how much money had been trans­ferred into the bank ac­count.

If charged un­der the Elec­tronic In­for­ma­tion and Trans­ac­tions Law, Mansur could be jailed for up to six years or fined Rp1 bil­lion.

Po­lice urged the pub­lic to be cau­tious when do­nat­ing. Na­tional Po­lice spokesman Se­tyo Wa­sisto said peo­ple wish­ing to as­sist should make do­na­tions through of­fi­cial chan­nels or rep­utable com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions, or through re­lief ef­forts run by po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions or the mil­i­tary and po­lice.


In the af­ter­math of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, it’s not un­com­mon to see peo­ple stand­ing with nets or col­lec­tion boxes on vil­lage roads, ask­ing for do­na­tions from pass­ing mo­torists.

Af­ter the Palu dis­as­ter, there were re­ports of fraud­u­lent col­lec­tors oper­at­ing as far away as Bar­ito Kuala re­gency in South Kal­i­man­tan prov­ince. Po­lice said that if peo­ple are ask­ing for do­na­tions, they should have an of­fi­cial au­tho­ri­sa­tion let­ter from the lo­cal com­mu­nity ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fice.

In North Su­lawesi, res­i­dents of Soli­man­dun­gan vil­lage found hun­dreds of items of used cloth­ing aban­doned on a road­side, along with card­board boxes on which “Help Palu-Dong­gala” had been writ­ten. There were also torn en­velopes.

Po­lice sus­pect that a per­son or group had been col­lect­ing do­na­tions on be­half of the tsunami vic­tims, and then kept the money and dumped the clothes.

In Jakarta, a syn­di­cate col­lect­ing do­na­tions in char­ity boxes was col­lect­ing an es­ti­mated Rp80 mil­lion per month for un­clear pur­poses, as the op­er­a­tors were not an of­fi­cial char­ity.

In neigh­bour­ing Malaysia, ef­forts to raise funds for the Palu dis­as­ter vic­tims have also at­tracted scam­mers. Malaysia’s Na­tional Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment Agency on Oc­to­ber 13 is­sued a state­ment ad­vis­ing it had never sent out a mes­sage through SMS or What­sApp so­lic­it­ing do­na­tions for Su­lawesi. Fraud­u­lent mes­sages had re­quested do­na­tions to be trans­ferred to a Malaysian bank ac­count.


Hun­dreds of sur­vivors of the Palu quake and tsunami were air­lifted to the South Su­lawesi cap­i­tal of Makas­sar, where they are now be­ing housed in refugee camps. On­line news por­tal re­ported that a seven-year-old girl who sur­vived the tsunami was al­legedly raped by two teenage boys on Oc­to­ber 16 at a refugee camp set up at a hous­ing com­plex in Su­di­ang vil­lage in Makas­sar.

The two 14-year-old boys were lo­cals, who lived near the refugee camp. They had ap­proached the girl while she was play­ing alone and pulled her into a nearby gar­den. One of the boys was soon ar­rested, while the other re­mains at large.


Nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in In­done­sia are some­times used as bait by ad­vance-fee in­her­i­tance scam­mers, of­ten oper­at­ing from Africa. Af­ter the 2004 In­dian Ocean tsunami that killed about 230,000 peo­ple, most of them in In­done­sia’s Aceh prov­ince, scam­mers started send­ing out emails, claim­ing to be con­trol­ling bank ac­counts of peo­ple killed in the dis­as­ter.

Scam­mers pose as bankers and in­vite their tar­gets to act as the next of kin of a de­ceased per­son, promis­ing to split the money with them. Any­one fool­ish enough to ac­cept such an of­fer is asked to pay a se­ries of fees, which stop only when the vic­tim re­alises they have been scammed.

For ex­am­ple, one poorly writ­ten email reads: “I am Mr Za­hoor Halwa, a banker by pro­fes­sion from Burk­ina Faso … I have the op­por­tu­nity of trans­fer­ring the left­over sum of $10.5 mil­lion that be­longs to late Mr Rudi Har­manto from In­done­sia who died along with his en­tire fam­ily in the Asia earthquake 2004, and since then the fund has been in a sus­pense ac­count. Be­cause of the static of this trans­ac­tion I want you to stand as the next of kin so that our bank will ac­cord you their recog­ni­tion and have the fund trans­fer to your ac­count. This money can be shared be­tween us in the ra­tio of 50/50.”

Don’t be sur­prised if such emails start cit­ing un­claimed bank ac­counts held by vic­tims of the Cen­tral Su­lawesi dis­as­ter.

If you do want to do­nate to as­sist sur­vivors of the dis­as­ter, con­sider rep­utable groups, such as Médecins Sans Fron­tières (Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders), which is as­sist­ing health cen­tres in Cen­tral Su­lawesi.

Na­tional Po­lice spokesman Se­tyo Wa­sisto said peo­ple wish­ing to as­sist should make do­na­tions through of­fi­cial chan­nels or rep­utable com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions, or through re­lief ef­forts run by po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions or the mil­i­tary and po­lice.”


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