Charity and Disaster Scams: Don't Let Criminals Pull Your Heart Strings

As with retailers, cyber criminals often follow a seasonal calendar, and the holidays are just as important for them as they are for retailers. Cyber criminals often coordinate their attacks to capitalize on the change of seasons and the holidays. They also take advantage of natural disasters, when people feel most charitable. Though these events bring out the best in most people, they also bring out the worst in criminals.

What does this mean for you? It means when there is a natural disaster, event or even a major holiday, such as Christmas, make sure you are researching before giving.

Look for the Signs of Scams

Most charities use a number of ways to reach potential donators, including phone, email, and mobile devices. Scammers know this and use the same methods to take advantage of this good will. Regardless of how a charity reaches you, you can look for some signs to ensure they are actually a charity and not a scammer. Here are a few of those signs:

  • They refuse to offer details on how the donation will be used.
  • The will not provide proof of their tax deductible status.
  • They use a name that is remarkably close to a reputable charity.
  • They use high-pressure tactics for donations.
  • They ask for donations in cash only.
  • They guarantee winnings in exchange for contributions.

Follow the Charity Checklist

It is recommended by the Federal Trade Commission that consumers follow a "charity checklist" to research the organization before making a donation.

Here are some things to do:

  • Ask for information such as the address and phone number.
  • Get the name of the organization and do online research, and make sure to do a couple of searches with the name of the organization and the words "scam" or "complaints."
  • Call the charity to verify their solicitation methods.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau or and make sure the charity is registered in your state.
  • Keep track of your past and present donations.
  • Consider an annual donation plan instead of giving on the fly.
  • Look up the organization on the IRS website to make sure they can legally receive tax-deductible contributions.
  • Understand the difference between "tax deductible" and "tax exempt." Tax deductible means that you can deduct the donation from your taxes. Tax exempt means the organization does not have to pay taxes.
  • Never donate cash or wire money, and do not give out your debit card PIN number in any situation. Instead use a check or credit card, but don't do this until you have fully researched the organization.
  • You should not donate to organizations that offer to pick up a donation from your home.
  • Be suspicious of charities that seem to appear suddenly in response to a current event or natural disaster. Even if they are a legitimate charity, they likely do not have the infrastructure to accept donations and use them appropriately.
  • Be skeptical of emails requesting a donation, as it might be a phishing scam. I make it a point to never click an email link, especially if it is a short URL. Instead, type the name into your web browser manually or go directly to the charity's website.
  • Advertising banners may also be scams, as may unsolicited paper mail, especially if the plea seems desperate or urgent.
  • Make sure you do not fall victim to a personal sob story. There are individuals that may contact others to request money based on their personal hardships. Though most people are too savvy for these scams, these individuals know exactly how to scam others, especially those who may be more naive such as the elderly.
  • Donate to organizations you know you can trust, such as the Red Cross. This is a credible, well-known organization that helps people across the world.
  • Before donating, make sure to look at the URL. A domain name is cheap, and just because a URL looks snappy, it doesn't mean the organization is legitimate. Always verify URLs by doing your research.

By following these tips, you should easily be able to avoid scams and still make donations to those in need.