Another tragedy born of Mother Nature — this time a 9.0 earthquake and a gigantically devastating tsunami in Japan — and it seemed the whole world held its breath as we stopped to watch what would happen next.

Countless thousands of souls have been lost, potentially deadly nuclear power plant leaks topped the headlines, and it left the rest of us to wonder, What can I do to help? Variations on that goodwill question blasted over television, radio and the Internet, and became “the” topic of discussion.

Also wondering what could be done in the aftermath were the criminals who slither into action at times of heartbreaking calamity. Almost immediately after riveting pictures of the destruction in Japan appeared, unscrupulous scammers began plotting how to divert your charitable donations.

In the past, immoral creeps who prey on human suffering were known to have set up a table at a shopping center or gone door-to-door asking for donations. Some took out inexpensive newspaper ads asking for contributions for disaster areas — think events such as major hurricanes, great floods or rampaging wildfires — to be sent to a P.O. box. But more recently, these predators have turned to a different hunting ground, the same place many of us go after a tragedy strikes: the Internet.

After the Japanese catastrophe, so many of us hit the World Wide Web for information that it was like shooting fish in a barrel for the dishonest. We innocently typed in such keywords as earthquake, donations, Japan, tsunami, relief, disaster fund, donations — or we used a phrase such as “earthquake in Japan,” and these cyber geniuses had already planted their poisonous links and malware, and engineered it so we were directed to their fraudulent sites instead of to bona fide news sites or charities.

They also choreographed it so they can capture our personal e-mail addresses and bombard us with solicitations. Click on a scammer’s planted video about Japan’s plight (Facebook users continue to be a prime target for this), and the criminals are able to gather up your personal information to continue their barrage of begging for money.

The cyber criminals quickly constructed Web sites that look glossy and legit. They feature pirated news video of the devastation (stolen directly off the air from sources such as CNN, MSNBC or Fox News), and they sport finely crafted and emotional appeals to “click here to donate.” With tears in our eyes for Japan’s massive misfortune, many unsuspecting souls follow the illicit commands to donate — and in doing so line the pockets of countless cyber thieves.

Who doesn’t want to help at a time like this, right?

The criminals might have spawned their fraudulent enterprise from American soil or from a base in any number of obscure countries. As soon as they get a windfall, they erase their cyber footprints and slink away until the next con. That’s why it is so difficult for law enforcement to track them down and prosecute.

Attorneys general in several states have issued warnings about all sorts of fraudulent solicitations. In Oregon, scam artists have been making phone calls asking for money for Japan. In Michigan, a warning to be skeptical of unsolicited cell phone text messages urging donations. In Arizona, a call to be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as surviving victims.

The FBI’s Jenny Shaerer, who works with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, told me: “We urge people to take the initiative themselves. … Don’t respond to something that comes to you, like an e-mail.”

My best advice? Never give out credit card or bank account information, don’t give cash and write a check so there’s a paper trail.

Japan is a country of respectful people where the crime rate is traditionally low, and in the aftermath of the crisis there has been no looting or related crime waves. They are a largely peaceful and law-abiding country. Ironic, then, that Japan would be at the center of such disrespectful scams. At a time when fresh water, food, medical supplies, gasoline and electricity are so desperately needed, any dollar diverted by swindlers is a crime against humanity.

I figure there’s got to be a special corner in hell for anyone who would exploit such suffering.

None of this is to discourage your donations to charity. It is to encourage you to give to the right place. Donate only to a well-established charity such as the Red Cross, UNICEF or Doctors Without Borders, to name just a few. And don’t be fooled by organizations with similar sounding names. “Your Salvation Army” is not the same thing as the real Salvation Army.

If you’re in doubt about a group, the Better Business Bureau can help. So can a quick look at the Charity Navigator Web site. It offers a handy list of the best and least efficient charities. If you don’t find a group listed there, you probably should donate to some other place.

And for goodness sakes, if you run across a phony charity, do the rest of us a favor: Report it to law enforcement to help put the bums out of business.

Diane Dimond is the author of Cirque Du Salahi: Be Careful Who You Trust. Click here for more information. She can be contacted at