It is true that, as nations go, Americans have more money than anyone, but it is also true that Americans are very charitable with that money. In fact, we are actually becoming more so every day. Unfortunately, because we are so willing to give, this creates many opportunities for scam artists to exploit the vast network of charitable opportunities that currently exist.
Their methods are varied and many, but all are designed to take advantage of your good nature and willingness to help. In their way, charity scammers are the worst kind of crook because they not only steal from you, they also deprive the neediest from the relief they so desperately need.
Let’s take a look at some of the techniques they use along with the ways you can avoid their tricks.
"Sounds Like a Charity" Scams
Many people are fooled by faux charities that have names which very closely parallel the names of real charities – or they sound so official, you would never assume that it was made up by a guy in his garage looking to steal your money. This is especially prevalent in the area of police and firefighter support charities. As the Federal Trade Commission warns, just because something has “police” in the title doesn’t make it on the up and up. Similarly, just because a charity mentions a disease by name doesn’t make it legitimate.
"Looks Just Like a Charity" Scams
In many cases, the fraud involves imitating the website of a legitimate charity. These malfeasant mimics create near-to-perfect web pages that say all the right things while very much looking the part. You go looking for somewhere to help and you find them instead. If such a site doesn’t have a phone number or a legitimate mailing address, you should be on your guard.
Natural Disaster Charity Scams
When natural disasters strike, there tends to be a lot of loose money floating around and scam artists are always at the ready to take advantage of the situation. Charities are created in an instant to deal with one specific event, such as a tornado, hurricane or flood. Many of these new, specific entities are legitimate, but the ad hoc nature of their creation makes for an environment in which fake charities can thrive. And, by the time the images of the devastation and suffering of the victims leave the news cycle, the scammers have closed up shop and moved on to their next scheme.
It is human nature to want to help those in need and nobody seems more vulnerable than people who have just had their homes destroyed and lives seriously altered by mother nature. Their neighbors and loved ones are dead, their town is destroyed and they are left with only what is on their backs; it’s only natural that you want to help them – and you want to do it right now, when they need it most. It is this sense of urgency that gives scammers their opening. Unlike with regular charities where most people give consideration before donating, natural disasters bring about a benign recklessness in people who would otherwise be cautious.
How to Spot & Avoid Charity Scams
Do Your Homework. The single most-important thing you can do is to take the time to research the charitable organization. The Federal Trade Commission has created an excellent checklist of what to watch for when judging the authenticity of a cause. High on the list is an unwillingness to cooperate with your requests to vet them. They’ll also make every effort to get your money immediately. One sure way to put them off their game is to ask them to mail you information on their charity. Other steps you can take are:
Check Up On Them. There are several charity grading systems on the internet (which are good to use in all giving situations – not just the ones where you suspect fraud – because they let you know who does the most with your donation). If you don’t see your prospective gift receiver on those sites, it might be that it does not have a national presence or it might be a scam. In the instances of more localized charities, you’ll have to reconnoiter them more thoroughly yourself.
Make Them Do The Work. A legit charity will have a procedure in place to answer your inquiries about their organization. One that is unwilling or delays in answering questions is likely not on the up and up.
Never Give Cash. You should always keep a record of your donation, whether for disaster relief or otherwise. If you send cash, obviously, that’s not going to work. If you pay by check or credit card – and this goes for any charity – you’ll have proof for tax deduction purposes, too. Of course, you don’t want to give your credit card number over the phone unless you’ve done your research on the charity first.
Donate Directly. Consider donating directly to the charity you support and have vetted, and not through a third-party charity. This means that more of your money goes directly to the charity instead of even more being skimmed off the top for additional administrative costs.
Beware of Bogus Claims. As the AARP warns its members, any charity that claims it gives all donations to victims is lying. Every group has administrative costs – even the ones with the highest grades on Charity Navigator and Charity Watch. To say otherwise is an indication of fraudulent intentions.