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Schenecker family says unauthorized online sites are exploiting tragedy

TAMPA — Fraudulent memorial funds flourished after the earthquake in Haiti and devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And now, in the wake of the shooting deaths of Beau and Calyx Schenecker, people are once again looking to profit.

Early Wednesday, the children's father made a public warning: The family has not yet established a website or fund capable of receiving money.

"Any such website which bears the Schenecker name is unauthorized, misleading, and merely an attempt to exploit this tragedy and deepen the sorrow of a community trying to heal," a statement from Army Col. Parker Schenecker said.

Police say Julie Schenecker, 50, shot her teenage children to death in Tampa Palms North last week. The tragedy has garnered national attention.

A search for Schenecker memorial funds online doesn't reveal much, but one site, which has since been taken down, stated that the New York-based 66th Military Intelligence Brigade was collecting money for 13-year-old Beau's soccer team and 16-year-old Calyx's cross country team. It linked to PayPal.

Officers listed on that website could not be reached.

Calyx's coach, Gary Bingham, said he has not been contacted by any group seeking to send money in honor of Calyx.

"I can safely tell you that, as of right now, nothing has been set up," he said.

Spammers are taking advantage of the situation. An online search for "Julie Schenecker" reveals YouTube videos that display pictures of celebrities or scantily clad women and refer viewers to other websites.

One site appears to promote a pyramid scheme.

This unethical practice is called "keyword spamming," said search engine optimization expert Fred Palmerino, president of Los Angeles-based Lancer Media.

These spammers use programs that gather hot keywords or phrases — things that thousands of people are searching for online. Then they link the words to their content.

"They believe, 'So what if 90 percent who come in are disgusted,' " Palmerino said. "There might be that 10 percent that forgets what they were looking for."

Spamming is often filtered out by search engines' algorithms, but YouTube's images provide a loophole because text readers can't read videos, he said.

A YouTube statement provided to the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday says that spamming is against YouTube's policy and that the company has tools in place to detect it. The company encourages people to flag such content so it can be removed.

"It is unfortunate that some people try to take advantage of such a tragedy," the statement reads.

Though tacky, spamming usually isn't personal, a Symantec spokesman explained. The cyber security company tracks spamming and phishing trends and notes that the spammers' primary objective is money.

They don't intend to prey on victims — they just use whatever keywords are popular. "It's a game of algorithms," said spokesman Sagar Desai.

While spamming is considered unethical, fraudulent donation sites can be illegal.

The Florida Attorney General's Office can prosecute activities that violate the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.

Wednesday afternoon, the office said it didn't have enough time to review whether the Schenecker sites fell under act, and couldn't say if anyone had filed a complaint.

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

Schenecker family says unauthorized online sites are exploiting tragedy 02/02/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 3, 2011 4:06pm]
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