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How to donate responsibly and avoid charity scams

Charity scams have been around for a long time and are especially popular during the holiday season when people are more likely to open up their hearts and wallets. So if you want your money to go to a charitable cause instead of lining the pockets of scammers, you should look out for warning signs and do your own research. Read on to find out how to avoid charity scams.

How to donate responsibly and avoid charity scams

How do charity scams work?

Fake charities raise money but do little or no charitable work. Instead, charity scammers use the donations for their own benefit.

Scam charities might target you with emails, social media posts, direct mail, telephone calls, on crowdfunding platforms, or simply come to your door to promote their fake causes. Scammers become more active around the festive season or after a natural disaster to prey on people’s generosity during these charged periods.

Armed conflicts like the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war may also increase the number of fake charity campaigns popping up and advertising themselves. So beware of the red flags listed below.

Seven signs that a charity organization is fake

Here are the main warning signs you should watch for to avoid falling into the trap of a charity fraud scheme. While some signs will be obvious upon a closer look, you’ll have to look up others yourself:

    1. There are no reviews of the charity, no ratings, or specific information to prove where the donations go. A real charity will have some reviews online and a rating. It will also provide clear information on how it has distributed its funds so far and how it’s going to allocate the money being collected. To avoid wasting your money, opt for a highly rated charity.
    2. Charity scammers prefer donations in cash, by gift card, or wire transfer. These methods allow easy access to money which is difficult to trace. Real charities gladly accept all methods of donating, including the safest ones — by credit card or check.
    3. You receive different information after clicking “Donate.” If the payment details — name of the recipient, billing address, or bank account number — you received after clicking the “Donate” button do not match the ones provided before, you have most likely been targeted by a fake charity.
    4. The website is not safe. Scammers operate using fake websites that could be infected by malware, designed to track your online activity and acquire your data. Some fake websites mimic the websites of well-known, legitimate charities to earn your trust and steal your money. So pay attention to whether the website you’re visiting is secured with a TLS encryption, which is represented in the URL bar as HTTPS, where “S” stands for “secure.”
    5. Your donation is not tax deductible. The charity should be able to give you proof that your donation is tax deductible. If it can’t — the charity could be a scam. You should check your local Revenue Service database to see if the organization is a registered charity and has a tax exempt status, which means your donation will also be tax deductible.
    6. You are being pressured to donate. If you are being pushed to make a financial contribution right away, this probably means you’ve stumbled across charity scammers. A legitimate, registered charity would never pressure its donors, it would accept their donations at any time, all year round.
    7. It requests too much of your personal or financial information. If a charitable organization asks you to disclose personal or financial data, like your Social Security number, you should not provide it and refrain from donating.

How can you protect yourself and your loved ones from charity fraud?

You can protect yourself and your loved ones from charity fraud by taking these precautions:

  • Donate by credit card. Credit cards usually come with fraud liability protections, so they are the safer choice.
  • Use a VPN for online banking operations. A VPN with a Threat Protection feature is helpful when using financial services on public Wi-Fi networks because it prevents you from accessing websites known to be used for phishing, which are a great way for hackers to gain financial data.
  • Do not share your passwords or other sensitive or personal information with the charity organizers. No trustworthy charity would ask you to do that.
  • Do not donate in cryptocurrencies. Digital currencies are preferred by some scammers because they are difficult to trace. So if a charity asks you to contribute in cryptocurrencies, this is an immediate red flag.
  • Be extra careful when you donate online, and practice cyber-hygiene. If you receive an email from someone you don’t know, never click on links or open attachments. There’s a chance they are malware-ridden and will infect your computer to track your online activity, or steal money and data. And don’t click on ads and messages on social media if you are not completely sure the organization posting them can be trusted.
  • If you are not sure about a charity, contact your state’s charity regulator to verify that the organization is legitimate. If you are donating to US-based charities, look them up on the Charity Navigator website — a charity assessment organization that evaluates hundreds of thousands of charitable organizations.
  • Keep track of your donations and review your credit card account on a regular basis to make sure you weren’t charged more than you agreed to donate. Some charity scammers also trick their donors into signing up for a recurring donation, so check if you haven’t been charged more than once. If you have, immediately stop automatic payments to their account.
  • Inform your family members about the risks. Talk to your loved ones about the signs of charity fraud and the precautions they can take to avoid being scammed. Remember to warn your elderly family members to be extra careful because they are the most susceptible to charity scams that take advantage of human kindness. Be especially careful and stay safe during the holidays.

What should you do if you become a victim of a scam?

There are some actions you can take in case you have fallen victim to a charity scam.

  • Document it. Write down the date when it happened and how it happened. Save all the emails, messages, and bank statements of your payments. List all of the personal information and other data you disclosed to the scammers.
  • Report cybercrime and scams. Each country has regulatory bodies and agencies that register and keep track of charitable organizations. Make sure you inform the relevant authorities about the charity fraud you’ve been targeted by.
  • Inform the police. You should always inform the police to increase the chances of the scammers being arrested and their criminal activities terminated.

So stay alert, do your research, and practice online safety to make sure your money really goes to those who need it most.