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How to Avoid Post-Disaster Donation Scams

Disasters bring out the best in most of us, and inevitably after a disaster scores of people want to donate and help. Unfortunately, there are plenty of bad actors who are ready to take advantage of people’s emotions.

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Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring out the good in people. You see it every time a disaster strikes, whether it’s flooding in Florida or an earthquake in a foreign country — people want to help.

Unfortunately, these circumstances also bring out the bad — the scammers, who will try to take advantage of people’s good will, their willingness and desire to help, and prey on their emotions. They’ll try to steal the contributions of those who want to help.

Whether it’s via phone call, website or social media, if you’re going to donate to a cause, you have to be on your toes and do some homework to make sure that your money or other donations go to a legitimate entity.

“Unfortunately, we live in a day and age when if you’re not expecting a phone call and you don’t recognize that number, even if the number says ‘Save the Children’ or ‘Red Cross,’ don’t believe it because it can easily be spoofed,” said Ally Armeson, program director at the Cybercrime Support Network. “Caller ID can also be spoofed.”

Scammers have gotten pretty good at spoofing websites as well and they can make a legitimate-looking argument for donating on social media. Unfortunately, without taking some time to check and make sure the entity is legitimate, it’s easy to fall for these scams.

“Scammers watch the news. Anything that they think is going to pull at the heartstrings,” Armeson said, will attract the bad element trying to take advantage of people’s emotions. “Social media is feeding into that emotion too, but it’s harder to verify.”

As Armeson said, if someone calls and says they’re from the Red Cross and they would like you to donate, take the time to research. Never let them rush you into giving right away. If you feel rushed, hang up and do some homework.

“It’s important to look at the URL,” Aremson said. “You can Google that and find out what the URL should really look like.”

She said email addresses are another thing. To use the Red Cross as an example again, you can easily search for the organization online to see what the email address should really look like. And never click on a link in an email; it could be a phishing email that will send you to a bad website.

“Websites often come in conjunction with a phishing email,” Armeson said. “I’m a scammer and I email you and say, ‘Hey, I’m from the Red Cross and here’s a website because I’m sure you’ve been watching the news and saw that this earthquake happened. Please click here,’ and then you go to a website that looks really good.”

“Really slow down when you’re getting that email, and never click on a URL,” she continued. “That’s a given even if it’s from your mother.”

A lot of times a URL will look good, but if you pay attention and look closely, you can find an extra letter or other slight modification. “You have to be looking for it,” Armeson said.

Use a search engine; Google it and make sure it’s legitimate.

GoFundMe pages are common and also difficult to verify. “I see my friend has created a GoFundMe page. It’s my ‘friend,’ so I’m going to go and look at this page,” Armeson said. “But it’s hard to see the chain of events and where it originally came from.”

Again, Google that person or whomever started the campaign, look for comments from people that may have donated. “Sometimes it’s just best to stick with the ones you know,” Armeson said.

Scammers always come out of the woodwork after natural disasters, and FEMA has some words of caution. Doing the following can help protect you from being scammed after a local disaster:

  • DHS, FEMA, SBA and other federal agencies will never charge you for disaster assistance.
  • Always ask to see I.D. FEMA personnel will always have an official identification badge.
  • Do not offer any personal information unless you are speaking with a verified FEMA representative.
  • Stay tuned to trusted local media for updates from your local officials on disaster fraud and scams.
  • Check with local law enforcement to ensure your identity is protected.