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Newtown massacre: Amid tragedy, scam artists creep in

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But scam artists know that calamity is fertile ground for profit, watered by the goodwill of strangers who want to help and may not be familiar with the cause or the people they're sending money to.

After the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., scammers asked for credit card donations for victims' families. After the 9/11 attacks, the North American Securities Administrators Association warned investors to be wary of Internet postings encouraging them to invest in supposed anti-terrorist technologies.

In 2006, the FBI warned about an email widely circulated after the Sago, W.Va., mine explosion, which claimed to be from a doctor treating one of the survivors and asking for donations to cover medical bills.

"As was learned after the tragic events of 9/11/01, the tsunami disaster, and more recently with Hurricane Katrina, unscrupulous cyber criminals have shown the desire and means to exploit human emotion by attempting to defraud the public when they are perceived to be most vulnerable," the FBI said at the time.

This fall, the police in Aurora, Colo., accused a local woman of trying to profit off the deadly movie theater rampage by a gunman who killed 12 people. The woman told people that she was the caretaker for a little girl named Kadence, whose mother had died in the shooting. The police said the child was made up. The scam unraveled when a donor got a phone call from what seemed to be a woman imitating a child's voice.

When the government doled out disaster aid after Hurricane Katrina, scammers asked for money to rebuild houses they never lived in or to pay benefits for relatives who never existed.

The government later set up the National Center for Disaster Fraud to try to root out such scams in the federal relief programs administered after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. It has since expanded its mandate to other disasters.

The cases brought since then by the Justice Department sketch a colorful picture of fraud:

- A woman who filed for small-business disaster benefits after the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill, even though she'd sold the business before the accident.

- A judge and a commissioner in Texas who, after Hurricane Ike, awarded debris removal contracts to a company in return for kickbacks, and also commandeered a 155- kilowatt generator meant for the county to power a convenience store owned by the judge.

- Pastors who submitted inflated claims to a government-funded program that reimbursed groups sheltering Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

Bob Webster, spokesman for the NASAA, knows the sad pattern.

"We know cons try to cash in on headlines, and any who would even think about stooping to capitalize on the tragedy in Newtown are the lowest of the low," he said.

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