Charity Scams and Donation Fraud

Computer keyboard and credit card.

[Photo Credit: Flickr/ HM Revenue & Customs]

It’s getting harder and harder to be a savvy consumer. Scammers attempt to get our money by sending emails, creating fake websites, calling on the phone under false pretenses, and sending text message designed to scare us. Worse still, fraudsters are taking increasing advantage of natural disasters like the tornadoes that swept through Oklahoma and the Midwest last year as well as recent Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

For most of us, it’s easier to donate our money than it is to donate our time. For many of the charities we support, both are valuable, but a monetary donation means the charities are able to purchase food, items of clothing, materials to build shelter, and also to provide supplies. Where there’s money, however, there’s always the risk of it being stolen, especially when a credit card is involved (if nothing else, the Target data breach shows how even legitimate consumer purchases can have personal information be compromised).

When it comes to donating to charity, you really can’t be too careful. Short of stopping donations all together, the best ways we can fight back against charity scams are to educate ourselves on how to spot them and then to report them.

Fraudulent charities have some tell-tale signs. They rely on your emotions to blind you to these tells, but if you make a mental checklist and stick with it, you can avoid these scams.

First off, always ask questions. If a reputable charity solicits you for a donation, they won’t hesitate to tell you about who they are, what their mission is, and how that money will be used. A scammer will avoid answering these questions.

As many charitable givers can tell you, donations are tax deductible — so long as they’re made to a qualifying organization. If a scammer comes calling or emailing, they won’t provide you with the proof needed to show that the donation is tax deductible. That alone should be a big enough sign to wave you off.

Another common scam tactic is one employed by thieves who don’t hustle for a fake charity. They’ll pressure you or try to scare you into providing your personal information. Disaster relief is time sensitive, but qualified, legitimate charities won’t try to strong arm you into handing over your money.

Probably the biggest warning sign of them all is asking you to donate in cash or by wire transfer — if you’ve ever received an email from a certain Nigerian prince looking to share his wealth, you know what this scam sounds like.

Now that you know how to avoid getting ripped off by a fake charity, what should you do if you come across one you suspect of being a fraud? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the first stop on reporting a charity you think might be a scam. You can help others out by alerting the authorities to a possible scam and share the warning signs as well.