When disasters hit, charity scams follow
Storms will be followed by bogus tugs at your heart, wallet
As with every natural disaster, the forecast after the tornado that devastated Oklahoma will call for an avalanche of fake-charity
Natural disasters often inspire people to donate money to
relief efforts. But where money flows, con artists routinely pop up and
establish fraudulent charities to accept donations from unsuspecting donors.
That's likely to be the case with the May 20 tornado that scraped parts of Moore, Okla., to the ground, killing at least 24 and destroying thousands of homes.
OKLAHOMA TORNADO BLOWS IN SCAM ARTISTS
In the wake of the May 20 tornado in Moore, Okla., state Attorney General Scott Pruitt has issued a warning to donors around the country to beware charity frauds. He urged those suspecting either fraud or price-gouging to call his office's hotline at 405-521-2029.
As a result, experts say the best advice for people wanting
to help is to donate to established nonprofits after verifying their identitiers
and track record. Be skeptical of pitches from groups you have never heard of
or that refuse to provide you with documentation that proves who they are.
"When there is a disaster that is highly publicized, people
want to help, but sometimes they let their emotion guide them rather than their
brains," says Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of CharityWatch, which evaluates charities
on behalf of donors.
There are plenty of government agencies and watchdog groups
that help deter scammers. State attorneys general and the Federal Trade
Commission typically send out lists of tips to avoid getting
conned and set up hotlines to report suspicious requests for charitable giving.
They also advise being wary of contractors who move in after a disaster to
assist with home repairs.
Burden falls on you
But with so many ways to communicate nowadays -- such as with
smartphones and social media -- much of the burden to avoid fake-charity scams
falls on individuals. For instance, donating via text messaging is becoming
more popular, because people perceive it as being easy and quick. But verifying
who gets the money when you text is trickier than donating by credit card or
Social media could also be a charitable landmine, Borochoff
says, because people might pass along information to friends without anybody vetting
"People make the false assumption that something is
legitimate because they get it passed on from a friend, who was duped," he
Katherine Hurt, spokeswoman with the Council of Better Business Bureaus, a
consumer organization, says scammers have evolved to incorporate new
"It's gotten more sophisticated," she says. "It's really
easy to create a real-looking charity. You can have a sophisticated website,
robocalls, all kinds of things that look like a real charity and sound like
For example, after a tornado hit Joplin, Mo., in May 2011,
killing 158 people and destroying more than 7,000 homes, Missouri's attorney
a Puerto Rican organization called Alivio Foundation Inc., which he said
fraudulently solicited donations on its website using PayPal. The foundation
claimed the donations would be used to assist survivors and relatives of
tornado victims in conjunction with St. Peter The Apostle Catholic Church and
Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, the attorney general's office said.
But neither the church nor Catholic Charities had ever heard of the Alivio
Foundation. The company had received nearly $10,000 in donations intended for
The Missouri attorney general also sued an Internet radio
personality in Georgia, who raised nearly $5,000 selling "Storm-Aid" T-shirts
and setting up benefit concerts aimed to help tornado victims. The money never went
to tornado victims, the suit alleged.
TIPS FOR FOILING
POST-DISASTER CHARITY SCAMS
If you receive a request for donations, follow these steps
before handing over money:
Sources: Federal Trade
Commission, CharityWatch, GuideStar.
Request the charity's name, address, phone number,
employer ID number and written information about its programs.
- Ensure that you understand where your money is headed.
Ask whether the person contacting you is a professional
fundraiser. Ask how much of your contribution goes to fundraising costs.
- Check with your state's attorney general's office to see
if it has information on the charity. Private groups such as GuideStar, CharityWatch
and the Better Business Bureau also track charities.
- It is often better if you initiate the donation, using
the charity's secure website, rather than replying to an emailed link or giving
credit card information to someone who calls you over the phone.
Missouri won judgments in both cases.
Take the time to use your head
Lindsay Nichols, a spokeswoman for GuideStar, which compiles information about
nonprofit organizations, says the critical step in donating to help after a
natural disaster is not acting in haste. Resist any high-pressure tactics or requests for cash now.
"The process to make sure they're not giving to a scam is
taking a few minutes to research," she says. GuideStar provides a wealth of
information about charities, including estimates of their overhead and
fundraising costs and links to federal tax filings.
But even using a search engine such as Google or Bing can go
a long way toward answering key questions, such as: What charities are doing
relief work in this area? Where is help needed most?
A charity's website might also include an annual report,
which offers details about its programs and its mission. People can evaluate
those to ensure their money is headed where they want it to go.
"They should say clearly what they do," she says. "If you
don't understand it, don't give to it."
And in the end, she says, the decision on whether to give
should come down to a gut feeling.
"Trust your instincts," Nichols says. "If it doesn't feel
right, don't do it. If you don't feel good about it, there are too many
nonprofits out there that would make you feel good about your donation."
See related: Giving charity gift cards? Mind the fine print
Updated: May 23, 2013