Scammers routinely try to take advantage of humanitarian disasters to get people to open phishing emails, or to donate money to fake organizations.
This month, they combined the two approaches, sending out approximately 700,000 spam emails asking people to donate money to fight Ebola through an Indiegogo fundraiser, according to a report by Silicon Valley-based security firm Barracuda Networks, Inc.
It is common for spammers to take advantage of humanitarian disasters to get people to visit phishing sites.
Humanitarian disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and epidemics are also fertile ground for charity scam.
But this is the first time Barracuda has seen spam email used to solicit donations for an Indiegogo campaign, said Barracuda's senior data scientist Luis Chapetti.
"But I'm sure there will be more," he said.
The spammers originally started sending out junk emails in mid October, he said, with a 200,000-email blast passing itself off as a Ebola news update that attempted to get recipients to click on a link to what was billed as a "civilian crisis protocol" but was actually just a compromised phishing website.
Then, on November 10, Google donated $10 million to non-profits helping fight Ebola and also launched a public Ebola fundraising campaign.
That's when the scammers decided to switch to a fundraising campaign of their own, Chapetti said.
"They're going after people's heartstrings," he said. "People generally want to do what's good for others, and that's why I think this is hitting so hard."
Indiegogo is a popular crowdfunding site, similar to Kickstarter, except that a project doesn't have to meet its fundraising goals in order for payments to go out.
In this particular case, however, Indiegogo caught the scam and shut it down early.
"No money was contributed and the campaign was removed," an Indiegogo spokesperson told CSO Online.
According to the spokesperson, Indiegogo has a multi-tier system in place to ensure that campaigns are legitimate, including proprietary algorithms, and a dedicated "Trust and Safety" team. In addition, individual users can also flag campaigns as suspicious.
Today, there are currently more than 180 Ebola-related fundraising campaigns on Indiegogo, of various degrees of seriousness.
One that is still up asks contributors to "help find a cure for this horrible virus" but contains exactly no information about how exactly the campaign will do that -- just asks for money. Another, titled "Ebola relief fund" promises that "all donations will be given to fight the Ebola crisis" -- again, without providing any details.
On Kickstarter, there are currently only ten Ebola-related projects, but Kickstarter funds are only paid out if the entire funding goal is reached, making it less appealing both for scammers and for open-ended fundraising projects.
There are also 130 Ebola-related campaigns on GoFundMe.com, nearly 50 campaigns on YouCaring.com, and 40 on GiveForward.com.
Late last month, the Better Business Bureau warned against Ebola-related scam fundraisers, specifically pointing to a page on GoFundMe to raise money for a Dallas nurse infected with the disease -- a campaign that was not authorized by anyone from her family.
The Bureau recommended that donors take time to investigate a charity before making an online donation or donate directly to a reputable charity or individuals whom they already know.
The Bureau also has a website, Give.org, where donors can go to check whether a particular charity is legitimate.
However, although some of the crowdfunding campaign sites said they were raising money on behalf of legitimately, big-name organizations, for most of these there would be no way for the donors to know how much of their money was actually passed along to the legitimate charities.