Avast researchers uncover disturbing crowdfunding scheme

Emma McGowan 28 Jun 2023

The scam exploits human emotions and the innate desire to help others, amassing considerable sums of money from unsuspecting donors. 

The landscape of cybercrime is vast and constantly evolving, and cybercriminals are always coming up with new and novel ways to manipulate people. Avast's cybersecurity researchers recently uncovered one such scheme, which involves a crowdfunding scam that preys on the generosity of the public, under the guise of charity crowdfunding. 

The scam involves a series of emotionally charged video ads that are shared on YouTube and Instagram. Each video tells the story of a child named "Semion" who is supposedly suffering from cancer and solicits urgent financial aid for the child's treatment. Each video introduces a child named "Semion," who is supposedly battling cancer. The narrative, primarily in Russian with English, French, Spanish, and Ukrainian subtitles, solicits urgent financial aid for Semion's treatment.

The storyline suggests that without immediate medical intervention, the young boy's life hangs in the balance. The videos exploit human emotions and the innate desire to help others, amassing considerable sums of money from unsuspecting donors. 

At the end of the video, viewers are directed to a donation page. It provides a variety of ways for potential donors to contribute, including direct bank transfers and online payments. The latter option accepts sums up to 10,000 EUR, categorized under emotively charged headings designed to further engage the donor's sympathies. 

"In our line of work, we frequently encounter scenarios where manipulators exploit inherent human traits to their financial advantage,” Avast security researcher Luis Corrons says. “However, the misuse of people's goodwill, especially when it involves the portrayal of sick children, is particularly disconcerting.” 

Those behind this deceptive campaign claim affiliation with World Champions EU, which they say is linked with an Israeli organization named World Champions. Despite efforts to communicate with World Champions, Avast had not heard back from the organization at the time of publication. Notably, Avast researchers detected a similar operation in 2022 that seemed to have Israeli origins, amassing over $650K through millions of video views. 

As of now, the recently uncovered scam has already generated more than €181K in donations, a number that continues to rise daily. Avast researchers have reported this deceptive channel to YouTube and urge caution when confronted with such crowdfunding appeals on social media. 

Corrons also underscores Avast's multi-faceted approach to combating such fraudulent activities. "Our role extends beyond identifying and tracking these scams. We also strive to create robust solutions to protect people from them, in addition to raising public awareness about the prevalence of such cyber threats. When it comes to making donations, due diligence in verifying the organization's authenticity is imperative," he advised.  

In order to ensure that donations serve their intended purpose, Corrons recommends visiting the official websites of reputable organizations directly, instead of responding to requests via emails, videos, or social media ads. This approach reduces the risk of funds being misappropriated by unscrupulous parties capitalizing on philanthropic sentiments.  

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