MANHATTAN — The typhoon waters had barely receded from the shores of the devastated Philippines when I received my first request for money from a scam artist.
The email appeared to come from the address of a friend claiming to be trapped on a trip to the devastated area. The message — headlined "SAD NEWS FROM LARRY HONIGMAN — said he lost his wallet and needed cash immediately to pay for his hotel room so he could get home.
“I really hope you get this fast,” the message said.
“I could not inform anyone about our trip, because it was impromptu,” the email continued. “We had to be in Philippines for Tour. The program was successful, but our journey has turned sour."
The message claimed that Honigman, a dentist and my childhood friend, had also lost his cell phone. His valuables and passport were being held by the hotel until the bill was paid.
“I will be indeed very grateful if i can get a short term loan from you ($1,550)," the message read. "This will enable me sort our hotel bills and get my sorry self back home.”
So I called my old friend.
“I’ve been getting so many phone calls,” Honigman said.
“I can't say how very distressing this is that someone could write that I was in the Philippines during the typhoon to get some money off this enormous tragedy.”
He is not alone in being victimized.
By coincidence, as I was talking with him, the Justice Department, the FBI and the National Center for Disaster Fraud was releasing a public service announcement warning the public about the potential for fraud in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.
The missive warns against responding to unsolicited emails, to be cautious of people representing themselves as victims or officials seeking donations, and instead to make donations directly to known charities.
So where was Dr. Honigman when the typhoon struck?
He was attending a medical conference in Providence, R.I., where researchers were discussing an illness that had afflicted one of his nephews.
“It was inspiring to hear what the researchers were doing, and then I came home and people are calling me hoping that I am all right," Honigman said. "I can't believe someone would be so low as to try to capitalize on such a terrible disaster."
No one should be too surprised, authorities say.
“After all, there was a lot of that going on during 9/11,” a top law enforcement official recalled. “There was a lot of fraud and a lot of cases.”
The Justice Department asks anyone who suspects fraud to contact the toll-free NCDF hotline at 1-866-720-5721, which is staffed 24 hours a day.
The NCDF was established in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and involves 20 investigative agencies. Complaints about suspicious email solicitations or fraudulent websites can also be reported to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.