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Watch Out for Charity Scams After a Disaster

How to avoid giving to fraudulent individuals and groups seeking relief donations.

Televised scenes of devastation and displaced families after natural disasters, such as hurricanes Harvey and Irma, usually move millions of Americans to help by donating to relief organizations.

Unfortunately, these events also bring out lots of scammers, who are constantly getting more organized and methodical.

For example, the websites they use might have been registered months prior, experts say. “Every year when the National Weather Service releases the names of that year’s upcoming storms, people start registering online domains so they can scam people,” says Walt Green, former director of the Justice Department’s National Center for Disaster Fraud.

The same goes for every kind of disaster.

The scams go beyond web domains asking for money. They also work through email and social media. Never give money through a link that someone emails you or provides via social media, no matter how much you may trust that person. He or she could have been scammed too.

Also be wary of email attachments that claim to be links to charitable organizations. They could contain malware that can infect your computer.

The Federal Trade Commission offers these tips for those who want to help disaster victims:

  • Avoid organizations using names that closely resemble better-known, reputable groups — for example, givetotheredcross.org rather than redcross.org.
  • Be wary of groups that won’t provide proof that a contribution is tax-deductible.
  • Watch out for those who thank you for a pledge you don’t remember making.
  • Avoid those who pressure you to donate immediately without giving you time to think about it or do any research.
  • Never give to anyone who asks for donations in cash or asks you to wire money.

If you encounter a charity you suspect is fraudulent, notify the Department of Justice at disaster@leo.gov, which tracks and attempts to shut down scams.

How can you verify that your donation is going to a charity that’s truly positioned to help, such as the Red Cross (which we highly recommend)?

Other charities, including local ones, may also be reputable but simply not well-known. To learn about them, check with organizations that vet charities, but remember that a charity recommended by one organization might fall short by another’s standards. Therefore, check with at least two rating groups before you make a gift.

Here are four vetting sites that can help:

Charitywatch.org — a site run by the American Institute of Philanthropy — has a good record of discovering charity scams and weaknesses, and it has letter grades for many charities.

CharityNavigator.org uses a star rating system to vet numerous charities.

Guidestar.org has a list of expert-recommended charities involved in relief efforts.

Give.org is the Better Business Bureau’s charity-checking site, allowing you to verify which ones meet its accreditation standards.

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