Con-artists exploiting Turkey-Syria earthquake to scam donations online: Report

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Con artists have been exploiting the earthquakes which killed more than 41,000 people in southern Turkey and northern Syria to steal money from social media users looking to donate to victims of the catastrophe, a report has found.

The scammers have been using popular platforms such as TikTok and Twitter – along with the hashtags - with messages such as 'Pray for Turkey', and 'Donate for earthquake victims’ along with images that allege to be on-ground footage of the disaster.

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But the images have found not to be real, in a report by the BBC and Bleeping Computer (a news website focusing on cybersecutity). Whilst claiming to be raising vital funds for the countless victims, many of whom have lost their homes after the disaster, scammers are instead pocketing donations into their own accounts.

The reports highlighted several examples of scams found online. One video showed a picture of a child wearing a light blue hat and matching scarf, running away from an explosion, the BBC said.

‘Please help achieve this goal’ was the host’s message, in a plea for TikTok gifts.

However, Google’s reverse-image search function - used by the BBC - finds that the picture was previously used in 2018, long before the quake, with a different caption that says: ‘Stop Afrin Genocide.’

Scammers have also been using Twitter to share emotive messages along with links to cryptocurrency asking for donations from users, but were found to be fraudulent and littered with errors and spelling mistakes.

A fake Twitter account urging people to donate to a PayPal link. (Twitter)
A fake Twitter account urging people to donate to a PayPal link. (Twitter)

The BBC said one account posted the same appeal eight times in 12 hours, sharing the same image of a firefighter holding a child surrounded by collapsed buildings.

However, the image shared was not real. The firefighter was seen to have six fingers on his right hand and reports suggest it was generated by Artificial Intelligence software Midjourney.

The report also found other examples on Twitter of people creating fake fundraising accounts and posting links to a PayPal fundraising page.

One example of such an account was named @TurkeyRelief. It joined the platform in January and had 31 followers and asked for donations via PayPal. The page had raised $900 of its $20,000 goal by the time it was suspended.

The BBC said that it was one of more than 100 fundraisers launched on PayPal asking for donations to the Turkey-Syria quake disaster. Bleeping Computer is said it found pages that directed donations to personal PayPal wallets.

PayPal told the BBC that while many accounts had 'the best intentions,' it was inevitable that some would attempt to exploit charitable people.

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

TikTok said that it was “saddened” by the earthquake and that it was contributing to relief efforts.

“We're also actively working to prevent people from scamming and misleading community members who want to help,” the BBC quoted it as saying.

Donate legitimately

In the UAE, there are several ways to donate legitimately.

The Emirates Red Crescent has a “Bridges of Good” campaign where volunteers are needed to help pack relief boxes for survivors of the earthquakes.

Suggested donation items include winter clothes, blankets, canned food and baby food, and personal hygiene items including diapers, wipes and sanitary pads.

“Bridges of Good” is one of several humanitarian missions being staged across the UAE.

Rubble from destroyed properties as seen from Iskenderun following the deadly earthquake in Hatay province, Turkey February 15, 2023. (Reuters)
Rubble from destroyed properties as seen from Iskenderun following the deadly earthquake in Hatay province, Turkey February 15, 2023. (Reuters)

Turkey’s consulate in Dubai has also launched a donation drive for vital food and winter clothing to support survivors. Across the emirate, members of the public are being invited to supply essentials, including clothing and food.

Meanwhile, the Turkish embassy in Abu Dhabi set up a donation drive for UAE residents to donate items urgently needed in Turkey and Syria. Those who wish to donate large quantities of items can drop them off at the CSS Homeward Bound transportation company warehouse directly.

International aid efforts

Internationally, hundreds of donation sites by international charities and local community groups from all over the world have also been created to help those in need.

Among those, UNICEF is working to provide immediate assistance with search and rescue, coordinating evacuations, and distributing hygiene kits, blankets and warm clothing.

“Children who are now in immediate danger of being hurt or killed in the oncoming aftershocks and collapse of infrastructures need urgent shelter, safe drinking water, and hygiene essentials,” the charity said in an online appeal for donations.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) - an international organization that provides medical aid to various countries in need - has been treating people in Turkey in their associated hospitals and has been donating emergency medical kits to other people in the region. It has also urged people to donate through its website.

Care International, a humanitarian organization that has presence in Turkey and Syria, has also urged people to give emergency aid including food, shelter, hygiene kits, cold weather supplies and cash assistance.

In a public appeal, Red Crescent organizations in both Syria and Turkey have asked people to donate first aid kids, blankets and clothes.

It said it urgently needs items including biscuits, bread, energy bars, flour, ready-to-eat meals, pasta, rice, milk, and baby formula.

Read more:

Turkey, Syria earthquake: How and what to donate to UAE relief efforts

Earthquake: Turkey’s health minister meets Saudi volunteer relief teams

Northwest Syria of ‘greatest concern’ after earthquake: WHO

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