Florida Man First One Arrested In Katrina Internet Scam

Gary S. Kraser's Web site promised that all money raised would help him airlift hurricane victims to safety. Turns out he was the only one flying high, prosecutors say.

Gregg Keizer, Contributor

October 4, 2005

3 Min Read

A South Florida man was the first arrested on charges of Internet-based fraud involving the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the Department of Justice said Monday.

Gary S. Kraser, 50, was charged with four counts of wire fraud, FBI representatives and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, R. Alexander Acosta, said Monday in a joint statement.

Kraser posed as a pilot flying relief missions into the New Orleans area immediately after Katrina made landfall, and solicited donations at a now-offline Web site, AirKatrina.com, to supposedly pay for fuel.

In one bogus message posted to the site on August 31, Kraser wrote "I'm flying full loads out, and offering the empty plane on the outbound for Air Ambulance. If we didn't have the plane, I don't think the little baby would have survived... She is undergoing transplant surgery at this moment I am writing."

According to the site, "every dollar, every nickel, [would] go directly into the tanks of these pilots planes on their mission of mercy."

In fact, Kraser duped nearly 50 Good Samaritans out of almost $40,000 in donations to his PayPal account, Acosta charged.

Kraser's faux flights even received press coverage. On Sept. 2, the Shreveport Times ran a story detailing Kraser's relief efforts, including talk of ex-military pilots, many supposedly with years of special-ops experience, flying aircraft into and out of New Orleans.

The technologically astute were among those faked out by Kraser. The quoted Rick Schwartz, a member of the World Association of Domain Name Developers, as saying "this is an example of Internet entrepreneurs quickly mobilizing to solve a major human crisis. Fortunately, the Internet allows real-time donations to be converted into the precious gasoline to allow us to make many more trips to save lives."

Kraser had reportedly asked help from members of the association in setting up his Web site.

A month later, however, Schwartz sang a different tune to the Miami Herald. In a story published Tuesday, Schwartz told the paper "We thought he was a hero. We thought, 'What can we do to help?' 'I even donated $1,000. We felt bad because we raised over $40,000 in 48 hours and it didn't do anybody any good. It was a scam and we all got scammed."

"It is simply unconscionable and intolerable that anyone would seek a personal financial benefit from the horrible human tragedy caused by Hurricane Katrina," said Acosta.

In early September, as Kraser was allegedly ripping off contributors, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force while on a trip to the devastated area. The task force, is chaired by Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher of the department's Criminal Division, includes representatives from the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Postal Inspector's Office, and the Executive Office of the United States Attorneys.

Kraser's case is the first Katrina Internet charity fraud charge brought forward by the task force, the Department of Justice said.

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