Pacific Island Storms Create a Tsunami of Online Scams

October 15, 2009
Hawaii’s BBB warns of malicious links disguised as Samoan tsunami sites.

Hawaii’s Better Business Bureau (BBB) is warning people about malicious Web sites and tweets trying to take advantage of recent natural disasters in Pacific island nations. Within hours of the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunamis that hit the islands of Samoa and Tonga, malicious software emerged as “scareware” in the form of fake anti-virus scans.

Scammers are quick to respond to newsworthy events, such as these natural disasters, because they know the topics create a lot of interest and concern. “There are two things you can count on after a major natural disaster,” said Dwight Kealoha, chief executive officer of Hawaii’s BBB. “The first is the generosity of people looking for ways to help, and the second is the appearance of scammers looking to take advantage of their goodwill.”

“Since Hawaii has large Samoan and Tongan populations, many of whom have loved ones in these Pacific islands, we think it’s important to warn about these malicious online activities,” said Kealoha. “It’s not unlikely that similar tricks are being used against people looking for information on the floods in the Philippines and now, the Indonesian earthquake, too.”

Rogue anti-virus scammers use search engine optimization techniques to ensure that their Web sites are among Google’s top results—Hawaii’s BBB found malicious links in the first 10 search results—and use keywords based on Twitter’s trending topics in related tweets. Clicking on a malicious search result or tweet related to the tsunami produces a very authentic-looking warning that the computer is infected and then launches a fake anti-virus scan. Attempts to stop the scareware attack by clicking to cancel or closing the window results in more pop-up windows with even more menacing warnings. Eventually, users are prompted to install a program that almost certainly contains viruses or other harmful files.

These scareware attacks are an increasing problem that can happen anywhere pop-up ads occur or links are shared, including trusted news sites, search engine results, and social media programs. To help protect against these malicious online scams, Hawaii’s BBB recommends maintaining your computer with critical operating system updates and current anti-virus software from a name you trust. Also, make sure that all security patches and updates are installed for your Web browser and other Internet-based programs.

For more advice about online safety or finding trustworthy charities to support Pacific island disaster relief efforts, visit the BBB Web site at

About Hawaii’s BBB
Established in 1945, Hawaii’s Better Business Bureau® (BBB) is the local authority on trust in the marketplace. BBB is an unbiased, nonprofit organization that sets and upholds high standards for fair and honest business behavior. Only businesses and charities that meet and adhere to BBB standards can receive BBB accreditation. Hawaii’s BBB provides objective advice, free business and charity reports, and educational resources on topics affecting marketplace trust. BBB also offers fair and timely dispute resolution programs for consumers and businesses. BBB resources are available online at