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Hoaxes, conspiracy theories abound on social media in tragedy's aftermath

By Leanne Italie

Associated Press

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 09:07 a.m. HST, Apr 19, 2013



NEW YORK » A blond, bespectacled girl with a serious expression and a red T-shirt chugs along a street in runner's togs and bib in a photo shared thousands of times on social media soon after the Boston Marathon explosions.

The image, in some versions, is accompanied by this message: "See this little girl? She died today. She was running the marathon for the Sandy hook (sic) kids. She's 8. Repost for respect of her. Wear red tommmarow (sic) to support her and all the others who died."

Only she didn't. She's alive, according to a Virginia charity whose 5K race the child is pictured walking in last year to raise money for the medical bills of sick kids. Evidence of that event is right there on her shirt: Joe Cassella, for the Joe Cassella Foundation in Leesburg.

Sadly, an 8-year-old boy was among three killed and more than 170 wounded in Monday's blasts in Boston, and a group ran in memory of the Sandy Hook schoolhouse shootings in Connecticut. Those factors likely made the bogus photo feel plausible as the bloody aftermath of the marathon bombing played out.

Like numerous disasters before, hoaxes and conspiracies have popped up in the chaotic first days after the tragedy, days when people want to jump in with help and support while investigations have barely begun or level of help for victims identified.

They're also days when thieves get to work setting up pleas for money via social media, phone calls and text, said Ken Berger, president and CEO of CharityNavigator.org, which monitors scams after disasters, offers advice on giving and rates nonprofits of all kinds.

"The problem is the head's not connected to the heart," he said. "People want to move too fast."

It was unclear whether donations were solicited using the young runner's photo, said Vivi Cassella, the Virginia foundation's president and sister-in-law of the cancer victim it honors. But it still caused problems.

Just hours after the photo began circulating, the foundation's website crashed under the weight of more than 1 million views. A Twitter account that spread the image early on, @hopeforboston, was suspended. Some who shared the photo on Facebook left messages of apology on the foundation's page after they learned it was a fraud, Cassella said.

"It's been crazy for us," she said. "If people had only taken the time to just listen, that it was a little boy, not a little girl, that she was wearing a Joe Cassella 5k bib and it had nothing to do with the Boston Marathon."

Also wearing a red shirt was a man in a fast-moving photo kneeling over a female Boston victim, with one shared explanation that she was his girlfriend and he had planned to propose as she crossed the finish line but she died before he had a chance.

The truth: He was a stranger offering assistance. She wasn't a runner but a spectator who was injured and survived.

Whether or not such shares online come with pleas for money, the motive to do something quickly soon after disaster strikes is hard to resist, Berger said.

"The irony is, your chances of getting ripped off are remarkably high in the early days for that very reason," he said. "People with the first thing up are the ones who may be the most loosey goosey, poorly organized or, worse still, thieves."

Everything from bogus charities to lost relatives who never existed surfaced after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Four years later, after Katrina, the FBI found 4,000 bogus websites, many operated by criminals overseas who stole the personal information of givers and their money, Berger said. Donations intended for victims of Hurricane Sandy were allegedly diverted for personal use by the operators of at least one charity, he said.

Tracking of about $15 million raised in Newtown aid has been so challenging that Connecticut's attorney general and consumer protection commissioner issued a joint letter last month seeking more information from 69 organizations registered with the state or otherwise identified as accepting donations related to the deaths of 20 children and six adults. Berger estimated less than $1 million has been given to victims and families.

Frustrated survivors and loved ones of the dead in previous high-profile attacks, from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to Sandy Hook, asked the federal government last month to come up with a new way to ensure 100 percent of donations intended for victims and families hits that mark.

They propose special emergency nonprofit status for "national compassion funds" that would afford givers the usual tax breaks and eliminate the patchwork of potentially ill-run organizations that crop up amid chaos. The compassion funds could be overseen by a specialist in handling compensation for mass crime victims, said Caryn Kaufman, a spokeswoman for the effort.

"Disbursement is often fraught with problems for the victims. We're trying to get it codified so the next time this happens we don't have to figure it out all over again," said Kaufman, in Bridgeport, Conn.

In addition to chasing the money trail, uncovering the original source and motives of out-there conspiracies and hoaxes online is always difficult, said David Mikkelson, co-founder of the debunking site Snopes.com.

"In general, look it up first by whatever means," he said, noting sharks falsely popped up in photos after Sandy, swimming in front yards and down streets, along with doctored images of dramatic storm clouds and wind whipping around the Statue of Liberty.

It took weeks, Mikkelson said, for a European tourist to come forward as the creator of doctored photos of a man on a balcony of one of the World Trade Center towers with a plane bearing down.

"It became one of the Internet memes. His picture was soon being Photoshopped into everything from the Lindbergh disaster to pictures of the pyramids," he said.

As for giving amid chaos after a crisis, Berger and Kaufman offer these tips:

>> Give to an established charity. Well-meaning new organizations may not have the infrastructure and knowledge of a region to maximize donations. Many charities allow for designated giving for specific purposes via check but not by other means.

>> Avoid telemarketers. Ask, especially in the wake of disaster, for written information and send a check by mail or via website rather than divulge credit card information to an unknown on the phone.

>> Do not send supplies. Unless credible pleas for clothing, food, water or shelter are made, Berger doesn't consider this type of giving efficient. He suggests turning that old clothing into cash handed over to a worthy charity.

>> Think before you text. Berger said texting can be a great way to give so long as you thoroughly vet the request for money and make sure to use follow all instructions for responding.

>> Don't expect immediate results. It can take time for charities to mobilize so be sure to track your donation and be patient. Don't be afraid to follow up on how your money was spent. Listen carefully to what local leaders are asking for or what first responders are identifying as trouble spots.






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