WASHINGTON – Homeland security (search) officials are outraged over a recent e-mail scheme targeting families of slain U.S. soldiers who were serving in Iraq, saying it's one of the most "despicable" scams they've ever seen.
The scam first caught the attention of agents with the Department of Homeland Security's Immigrations and Customs Enforcement about three weeks ago, when a handful of families told them they received e-mails asking for cash or personal information.
What really has agents steamed is that the e-mails, in an effort to give the scam some legitimacy, include a link to the ICE Web site. In one scam, the sender claims to be an ICE agent working in Iraq trying to recover money looted from the Iraqi Central Bank (search) by Saddam Hussein's son.
The second scam is perhaps the most disturbing because it's hitting families who are already vulnerable and grieving because of their loss in Iraq. The e-mail says it's from a friend of the fallen soldier who set money aside for the family. All the scammer needs is some cash or information to facilitate a bank transfer.
One telltale sign that the e-mail is part of the scam is that it claims to be from a friend of a fallen soldier or an ICE agent — homeland security officials say their agents would never ask for personal information such as a bank account or Social Security number online.
"To capitalize on the death of a soldier for all the good work they are doing over there is just despicable, and we particularly resented that they used our emblem from our Web site to sort of give it some credibility, and we worked so well with the Army over there at the beginning of the war," said John Clark, deputy assistant secretary for ICE.
ICE agents were withdrawn from Iraq in March 2004, the agency said.
The bogus e-mails resemble the so-called "Nigerian letter" (search). In that persistent scam, victims are presented with an opportunity to receive nonexistent government money, often from the "Government of Nigeria," as long as they pay a fee often characterized as a bribe to that government.
ICE has its Cybercrime Division working on this and is also getting help from the Department of Defense. Officials say it's too early to tell who's behind the scheme, but they say those who are responsible likely have been trolling the newspapers or surfing online to find families who could be easy targets.
The scams "are among the worst we have ever encountered," ICE Director Michael J. Garcia said last week.
"Most troubling is the fact that some are targeting the relatives of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. We are also concerned about the fact that these criminals are impersonating ICE agents and referring to ICE's official Web site in an effort to steal money from Americans who have lost loved ones. Those who receive these bogus e-mail solicitations should ignore and delete them," he said.
FOX News' Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.