By Simon Rabinovitch
BEIJING, May 15 People across China have opened their wallets to give earthquake aid -- and fraudsters have swung into action to capitalise on the burst of generosity.
Police issued a warning after a flurry of text messages hit mobile phones, soliciting disaster assistance in emotional appeals, only asking that funds be deposited in private accounts.
"My family was in the earthquake. Dad and mum urgently need money. Send whatever money you can. Deposit it in our friend's account," read one text in the southern province of Guangdong proven to be fake by local reporters.
Chinese web chat rooms, which have been full of sympathy and grief for the quake's victims, exploded in fury.
"Anyone who steals this kind of money will be cursed," said one person on sohu.com, a popular web portal.
Another wrote: "I'm truly speechless. Why must there always be bad guys among our people?"
Many of the comments were more aggressive, wishing the swindlers meet violent ends.
The "black-hearted text messages", to use the Shenzhen Economic Daily's phrase, stand in rare contrast to the outpouring of goodwill in China after the quake that may have killed as many as 50,000 people.
Domestic donations in both cash and goods to the quake-stricken areas reached 1.3 billion yuan ($186 million) by Thursday, the Ministry of Civil Affairs announced.
The generosity is all the more striking for a country without a long tradition of philanthropy and whose citizens are themselves often only a generation removed from poverty.
People have thronged clinics to give blood for victims, with some turned away after queues grew too long.
And the Chinese Red Cross Foundation had to suspend its normal website (www.crcf.org.cn) after it was flooded by visitors looking for ways to help. In its place was a single page of text, listing the bank account details for an earthquake relief fund.
"Donors should go through our official website," a Red Cross spokeswoman said. "Don't trust random messages or emails."
Charitable fraud is not unheard of in China.
On Thursday, the Beijing Times reported the Chinese Care for Growth Society had been repudiated by 10 government ministries, which it claimed as backers. Most of its purportedly charitable activities were commercial in nature, the newspaper said.
And disasters have proved fertile ground for con artists around the world.
Nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast, authorities there were still sifting through a pile of fraud cases in which people allegedly bilked the government out of $500 million in disaster aid.