Beware of Disaster Relief Scams

The images on your screen are heartbreaking: people ferried away from their flooded homes in boats or returning to houses either burned to the ground or ripped apart in a tornado. And our natural inclination when we see the widespread media coverage of these frequent disasters is to help somehow. Unfortunately, this can make us prey to the scams that pop up as regularly as the disasters themselves.

While Billshark understands and supports your charitable instincts, we’d like to caution you against the crooks who would take your money, thus stealing not only from you but from the needy people who could benefit from your generosity.

Speaking of money, the last thing responders in disaster zones need is truckloads of clothing from well-meaning donors. When people are lacking electricity, food, and shelter, no one on the scene has time to sort through hand-me-downs to see whether they’re in usable condition and whom they might fit. So all the charitable organizations emphasize sending money only. An exception might be coordinated efforts in your area to gather truckloads of usable supplies, such as water, that are then transported into affected areas and distributed by disaster organizations already in place there.

Otherwise, just send money. But do it safely. Here are some tips offered by the FBI and the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF), which was established by the Justice Department in 2005 following hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Its mission is to investigate, prosecute, and deter fraud related to any natural or man-made disaster and it coordinates with more than 20 federal agencies in this endeavor. This allows it to act as a kind of national clearinghouse for information related to suspected disaster relief fraud.

Before making a donation of any kind, the FBI warns, consumers should adhere to certain guidelines, including the following:

  • Do not respond to any unsolicited (spam) incoming e-mails, including by clicking links contained within those messages, because they may contain computer viruses.
  • Be cautious of individuals representing themselves as victims or officials asking for donations via e-mail or social networking sites.
  • Beware of organizations with copycat names similar to but not exactly the same as those of reputable charities.
  • Rather than following a purported link to a website, verify the existence and legitimacy of non-profit organizations by using Internet-based resources.
  • Be cautious of e-mails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files, because those files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders.
  • To ensure that contributions are received and used for intended purposes, make donations directly to known organizations rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf.
  • Do not be pressured into making contributions; reputable charities do not use coercive tactics.
  • Do not give your personal or financial information to anyone who solicits contributions. Providing such information may compromise your identity and make you vulnerable to identity theft.
  • Avoid cash donations if possible. Pay by debit or credit card or write a check directly to the charity. Do not make checks payable to individuals.
  • Legitimate charities do not normally solicit donations via money transfer services.
  • Most legitimate charities maintain websites ending in .org rather than .com.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lists the following additional cautions:

  • Don’t let anyone rush you into making a donation. That’s something scammers do.
  • Some scammers try to trick you into paying them by thanking you for a donation that you never made.
  • Scammers can change caller ID to make a call look like it’s from a local area code.
  • Scammers make lots of vague and sentimental claims but give no specifics about how your donation will be used.
  • Bogus organizations may claim that your donation is tax-deductible when it is not.
  • Guaranteeing sweepstakes winnings in exchange for a donation is not only a scam, but it’s also illegal.

If you see any red flags, or if you’re not sure about how a charity will use your donation, consider giving to a different charity. There are many worthy organizations who will use your donation wisely. These organizations offer reports and ratings about how charitable organizations spend donations and how they conduct business: BBB Wise Giving Alliance; Charity Navigator; CharityWatch; and GuideStar.

Your best bet when giving after a disaster is to stick to well-known charities. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t authentic smaller organizations that could benefit from donations. Many animal rescue organizations in the affected area, for example, may desperately need help but lack national recognition. Follow the FBI tips above to verify their legitimacy.

If you learn of an organization through valid news sources—network news, national newspapers, your local news stations, etc.—you’re probably safe. Still, it doesn’t hurt to check out a target charity before sending money. Look up their websites and donate directly there. Also search online for the charity’s name plus “complaint,” “review,” “rating,” or “scam.”

To learn if a charity is eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions, you can check them out with the IRS.

And if you need to find some extra cash for this or any other purpose, let Billshark find hundreds or even thousands of dollars in savings on your bills.

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