How to Donate to Hurricane Relief Without Getting Scammed



When natural disasters strike, Americans pour in money and support to help the victims.

But while relief efforts are uplifting, they come with a caveat for anyone looking to contribute: How can you give money safely and securely to people who need it most?

Fundraising scams and fake charities often show up after hurricanes and other disasters. These practices aren’t new either — less than six months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, the FBI had opened 100 investigations into fraudulent fundraising sites.

“After disasters like this, we do often see more organizations popping up, and it does take some time if there are scams out there to identify what they are,” says Katelynn Rusnock, the advisory system manager for Charity Navigator, an independent charity watchdog organization. Based in Glen Rock, N.J., Rusnock specializes in communicating potential wrongdoing found within charities.

So how can you make sure you’re not donating to a fake organization? Here are five ways to avoid fundraising scams.

Make sure the charity is legitimate with charity tracking sites

Learn about the organization before you give away any of your money, Rusnock recommends. Charity Navigator, and similar sites such as CharityWatch and GuideStar, maintain up-to-date listings of registered nonprofits, which you can use to check whether or not an organization is legitimate.

When in doubt, Rusnock suggests giving to larger nonprofits that have contributed to previous major disasters.

“Larger organizations that often respond to disasters are usually fairly equipped to deal with these types of things,” she says. “They have the teams with the expertise, and they’ve got the experience to do this well.”

Look up their employer identification number on the IRS website

You also can look up charities by checking their employer identification number (EIN), which will show if they’re registered with the Internal Revenue Service. Rusnock says you should be able to find this number on an organization’s website, and recommends asking them directly if it isn’t readily available. To help verify these groups, the IRS has created a tool on its website for searching charities by their EIN.

Check scam alerts from the Federal Trade Commission

Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission frequently updates a list of scam alerts so you can stay aware of recently reported groups.

The FTC reports that a flood insurance scam is already proliferating in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Homeowners and renters get robocalls telling them their flood premiums are past due and that they need to submit a payment in order to get relief from their insurer.

You can sign up to get scam alerts sent directly to your email.

Beware of fake social media fundraising

While social media can be a helpful source of information about ways to give, and seeing friends talking about donating online can make it seem like an enticing option, it’s also unregulated and can be exploited by scam artists and phony nonprofits.

In times of heightened need, scammers using fake Facebook accounts and Twitter bots to post spam or malware links can be some of the biggest offenders.

Phishing is also a common concern, according to the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Fraudulent organizations may send out emails or texts asking for direct donations or personal information, which are often attempts to steal a person’s identity. You should avoid giving out personal information or clicking on links from unknown sources.

Look out for red flags, like requests for payment via wire transfers

It’s also smart to be conscious of how a charity wants you to donate. In the FTC’s guide for avoiding fundraising scams, the organization warns that groups asking for payment in cash or through a wire transfer are more likely to be fake. Additionally, charities that offer to send an overnight courier to collect money, or use other tactics to pressure you to act quickly, are usually worth avoiding.

To combat this, Rusnock says it’s best to give directly to the charity through their own website, as opposed to using outside channels, such as social media or emails, that may or may not be associated with the organization.

Crowdfunding could be deceitful, too. According to the Better Business Bureau, campaigns on sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo can be unreliable, as it’s hard to determine whether or not a source is trustworthy or not. Still, there are some reliable ways to use these services, and GoFundMe has even set up an official page specifically for Hurricane Harvey relief and for Hurricane Irma relief. GoFundMe also offers to refund customers if they find out their donations weren’t used as promised.

Once you choose a legitimate charity, Rusnock suggests sticking with the organization. While many people tend to only donate immediately after a disaster strikes, she recommends signing up for recurring payments, or checking back in with the organization months after your first donation to learn about their current needs.

“A lot of people want to go out and donate after this happens, but we encourage donors — if they’re able to — to continue to support that organization even once the crisis is no longer in the news,” Rusnock says. “Oftentimes the charity is still responding long after attention has shifted away.”


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5 Ways to Scam-Proof Your Charitable Giving

Getting ready to donate some funds before the end of 2016? Here's a few ways to scam-proof your charitable giving.

The holiday season is a time for giving, but it is also a time to get ready to pay your taxes, and for those who are fortunate enough to have more than they need, it is time for some end-of-year charitable giving.

Even if you don’t have a big surplus budget, you may want to balance out the holiday “gets” with some giving. The glut of holiday gifts, food and accessorized jollity make it unavoidable, bringing to mind the millions who struggle each day just to get enough food and clean water, shelter and/or warm clothing.

Whether you are moved to help refugees in war-torn areas, children crammed into underfunded schools or endangered animals, your beneficence will be for naught if a scam artist tricks you into making a donation to his or her personal treasure chest.

When it comes to giving, you want to be sure your gift gets where you want it to go — where it can help. Scam artists who take advantage of that humanitarian spirit are an unfortunate part of our social jungle, predators who use the pain or most pressing needs of others for their personal gain.

On the charitable scam front, this holiday season will most likely be little different from previous years. Predators are targeting anyone and everyone moved to help others. Your empathy is their quick buck.

None of this should put you off giving to your favorite charity, or for that matter a new charity. The worst parts of our society should never be allowed to interfere with our better angels, but they should also never be discounted, lest they get the upper hand.

For the most part, if you are up to speed on the scams and pitfalls out there, you should be okay. The key is to cultivate a mindset of caution, as I explain in my book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves. Practicing caution can be as simple as not clicking on a link sent to you online, even if it looks exactly like an email that you’ve received in the past from a trusted organization.

The same goes for a phone call. The person on the other end of the line may sound legit, but the only way to be sure is to operate by this basic rule: Never trust, always verify. Never say yes to a request unless you have independently confirmed it is coming from a legitimate organization and you are in control of the interaction. Do not automatically assume because the subject line or name of the sender looks right, or the Caller ID looks official that you are dealing with the right charity or nonprofit. We are way beyond bad grammar, misspellings and unprofessional logos. The bad guys are really good at what they do.

When you are looking to do right by others, here are some ways to ensure that you are doing right by yourself and that your hard-earned funds are going to the right place.

1. Do Some Research

Charity Watch and Charity Navigator (both recommended by the Federal Trade Commission) provide lists of charities working on the behalf of victims of specific disasters as well as breakdowns of how your donations get spent. If you like the sound of a charity, check it out online. If there are any issues with the way they work, or if there are any scams related to those charities, you will see posts about it on the first page or two of your search results.

2. Always Initiate Contact for Your Gift

You never know who is on the other end of a phone call or what is on the destination site linked to in an email. The only way you can be sure is to contact the organization directly. It doesn’t matter if the person who solicited you says they need you to make your gift with them because they have a quota — after all, isn’t giving about the recipient, not the solicitor? Nothing anyone says to you (other than your heart — provided you use your head — and the advice of your accountant) should influence the amount, method or timing of your donation. Call the charity to make a donation, or do a search and make sure you have the correct web address and that the page where you enter your donation amount and payment card information says “HTTPS.”

3. Get — Don’t Give Out — Information

There is no situation in which a charity needs your Social Security number or anything else from your Identity Portfolio. You should be asking them for information though, like how your money will be spent and whether they will be sending a statement so you can deduct the gift in your tax return.

4. Keep Records

You need to take notes because your gift may not require the charity to send you a statement. Use a credit card, which will create an automatic record of the transaction for you to use when preparing your taxes. If a donation is more than $250, you will need a letter from the charity that confirms their status as a tax-exempt entity and the amount of your contribution.

5. A Special Note

As the results of the presidential election surprised and dismayed millions of Americans, many have become concerned that a number of not-for-profit organizations will face severe funding cutbacks in this new political climate and have begun to increase their private support. This fact has not been lost on scammers. Donors should be even more sensitive to solicitations that are not what they seem to be during this time of transition and uncertainty.

At the end of the day, only you can make sure the gift you want to give goes where it is intended. (And if you think you’ve fallen victim to a scam, keep an eye on your credit for signs of identity theft. You can view two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free on Be generous, but always be careful.

Image: Leks_Laputin

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Want to Help Hurricane Matthew Victims? Watch Out for Charity Scams


Hurricane Matthew is making headlines, as many Americans prepare for the heavy winds and flooding that could potentially come with the storm as it heads toward the coast.

When these storms roll in, it’s common for people to set up crowdfunding sites to help those in need. While many of these sites are legitimate, it’s important to remember that they aren’t typically vetted by reputable authorities, so they can be set up by anyone — including those who want to scam you. (We saw this type of thing happen after several other natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina.)

“After every natural disaster, people become so generous and want to help,” H. Art Taylor, president and CEO of Better Business Bureau (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance, said in an email.

If you’re considering donating to help those who felt the effects of Hurricane Matthew, the BBB encourages you to be smart and thoughtful about how you give and offers several ways to do so. For example, if you’re giving funds online, make sure you’re careful about the links you click and where you enter personal information.

You’ll want to verify that the site is in fact what you believe it is (as scammers often create a misspelled version of a site to confuse those who may mistype their intentions) and also that it is secure (look for https in the URL). It’s also a good idea to go directly to a charity website by typing it in yourself, instead of via a link that came in an email.

According to the BBB, there are some things to think about when considering donating to a storm relief charity.

  • Nearby Groups: Consider charities that have people in the areas that were affected by the storm who can actually help those who are experiencing the aftermath, as they’ll be able to help more quickly.
  • Be Wary of Claims That 100% of Donations Go to Victims: For the most part, charities have fundraising and administrative costs, so claiming they won’t take a portion is not providing you with full transparency. (Remember: Even using a credit card comes with a fee, so if you’re paying with plastic, the charity will have to cover that fee or may offer the option to build your transaction fee into your donation.)
  • Avoid Pressure: Reputable charities are not known for pressuring people into giving money, so if this is your experience, you may be dealing with a scammer.
  • Giving Items Instead of Money: Donating food, water, clothing or some other item, while done so with the best intentions, may not always deliver the best results. Before doing so, check with the charity to find out its distribution plans and, as the BBB advises, “be wary of those who are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.”

The BBB also mentioned people should be aware of “storm chaser” scammers — those who come in after storm damage and offer “deals” to help people with repairs. It’s a good idea to do your research and verify legitimacy before hiring anyone.

If you do have to pay for repairs after the storm subsides, and you do so on a credit card, make sure you don’t charge more than you can afford, as credit card debt can be almost as damaging as the storm. You can see how any credit card debt you carry is affecting your credit by viewing a free credit report summary, updated every 14 days, on

Image: LTopDesign

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