Turkey-Syria: Warning as scammers use earthquake to harvest donations

Warning as scammers use Turkish earthquake to harvest donations: Charitable victims lured in by fake disaster pictures and AI generated images… including a firefighter with six fingers

  • Scammers have been posting images from disaster zone to social media
  • But while they ask for donations, they are actually filling their own accounts 

Scammers are exploiting the Turkey-Syria earthquake tragedy to steal money from charitable social media users looking to donate to its victims, a report has warned.

The con-artists have been caught posting images and videos of the tragedy – some of them fake – on platforms including TikTok and Twitter, along with messages such as ‘Pray for Turkey’, ‘Let’s help Turkey’ and ‘Donate for earthquake victims’.

But while claiming to be raising money for survivors of the disaster – that has left more than 35,000 people dead and millions more without shelter, food or water – the scammers are instead funnelling donated funds into their own accounts.

On TikTok Live, content creators can make money through digital gifts sent to them over the platform, that is particularly popular among the younger generations.

This is one of the methods uncovered in reports by Bleeping Computer (a news website with a focus on cybersecurity) and the BBC, that is being used by the scammers to rake in cash from users moved by the tragedy.

This image has been used by scammers in posts requesting donations towards the victims of the Turkey-Syria earthquake disaster, which has killed more than 35,000 people. The emotive image has been AI-generated, with the firefighter having six fingers on his right hand

The reports highlighted examples of scams that reporters found online. One account, which reportedly broadcast live for more than three hours, showed a pixelated aerial view of buildings destroyed in the catastrophic earthquake.

The report said the image was accompanied by the sounds of explosions. ‘Let’s help Turkey. Donation,’ the video’s caption said. A purple thumb with a ‘donation’ label could be seen in a screenshot of the post, encouraging viewers to send money.

Another live-streamed 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 and recreated by MailOnline – finds that the picture was previously used in 2018, long before the quake, with a different caption that says: ‘Stop Afrin Genocide.’

This is a reference to a city in north-west Syria, which saw Turkish forces and their allies in the Syrian opposition clash with a Kurdish militia in 2018.

Scammers have also been using Twitter to share emotive messages along with links to cryptocurrency asking for donations from users.

Another live-streamed video showed a picture of a child wearing a light blue hat and matching scarf, running away from an explosion (pictured), the BBC said. The image, however, originates from 2018 and is not of a child caught up in the on-going earthquake disaster

Pictured: A fake Twitter account urging people to donate to a PayPal link

Pictured: A PayPal donations page asking for donations towards the survivors of the Turkey-Syria earthquake disaster, which was found to be fake

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, in another layer of deception, the image shared was not real. 

According to Greek newspaper OEMA, it was generated by Artificial Intelligence software Midjourney. In addition to other signs that the image was not a real photograph, the firefighter was seen to have six fingers on his right hand.

The BBC also said that the cryptocurrency wallet address had been used in other scam tweets since 2018. A second address in the same tweet had been posted on Russia’s Facebook equivalent VK along with pornographic content.

The report said its authors had contacted the person behind the Twitter account, who denied that they were a scammer.

The person told the BBC their aim was to ‘help people affected by the earthquake’. The broadcaster said they had not sent receipts to back up their claim.

It also said it 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 touts donations via PayPal. The page had raised $900 of its $20,000 goal by the time it was suspended.

The Twitter account was also suspected. 

People wait hoping for news of their relatives as search and rescue teams search the rubble of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras on February 14, 2023

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.

The tech news site noted that PayPal has not operated in Turkey since 2016, so Twitter accounts with usernames that sound ‘Turkish’ and claim to be based in Turkey – while linking to a PayPal account – are likely untrustworthy.

Bleeping Computer also reported fake charity and emails were being sent by scammers. Similar practices were seen to exploit the war in Ukraine, it said.

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 scrutinise 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.

The Chinese platform has been criticised in the past after investigations found that it takes 70 percent of donations given through the app. The company says this is less.

Britain’s charity commission has urged the public to ‘give safely’ to support aid efforts in Turkey and Syria. 

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