Category Archives: Charity Scams

Avoiding Charity Scams

I sometimes repeat myself, and occasionally I’ll say something I’ve said before, too. But even if you’ve read or heard about charity scams before, it never hurts to have a quick reminder. It’s already November, and charitable giving comes up a lot this time of year.

I’ll keep it short: decide in advance which charitable organizations you wish to support instead of waiting for others to approach you. If you’re looking for a new cause, research before you donate.

When you already know whom you’re giving to, it makes it much easier to turn down those who call or email out of the blue because you won’t feel pressured. You can explain to callers that you’ve already done your giving for the year (and you can just ignore emails—I would hesitate to trust an out-of-the-blue request via email).

If you’re checking out a new charity, the go-to resource is CharityNavigator.org. This website tells you how much a charity spends on marketing and how much money makes it into their programs, gives executive salaries and other financial information, as well as an overall rating of the organization. No mainstream charity manages to have 0% operating expenses, but if you see one that devotes 99.5% of its revenue to salaries and marketing, with only 0.5% going toward programs, you know it’s one to avoid.

T’is the season

This time of year, a lot of people are thinking about ways to help those who are less fortunate.

Some like to volunteer directly, others donate goods, and many like to give money to charitable organizations.

If you fall into that last category, this is your annual reminder: always look into a charity before you give them money. There are people out there who take advantage of others’ goodwill, and sometimes they set up elaborate schemes to siphon funds meant for other purposes.

If you’re unfamiliar with an organization, one of the best places to start is Charity Navigator.  There you can find out how much of a charity’s income it actually spends on its programs, how much it spends on fundraising, and more. Quick tip: if it spends 3% on programs and over 85% on fundraising, pass on making a contribution. All charities have some operating expenses, but that’s just beyond the pale.

I’m leery of charities that make cold calls. I used to get one all the time from an alleged charity that had something to do with police officers. I forget which one, so I won’t try to guess, but I recall the people on the phone would routinely imply that they themselves were actual officers. They weren’t. I never donated a cent because the whole operation sounded shady to me. Later I found out their operating expenses, including fundraising, executive salaries and administrative costs, took up something like 98% of their income. The other 2% went to whatever the charity claimed to do (they were vague about this as well). Maybe there are good charities that make cold calls, but I’ve never been contacted by one, so make sure you check them out before you donate a dime.

I believe the best way to avoid charity scams is to decide in advance who is getting your donations each year, and contact the organization(s) yourself. Pick your favorites, find out how to get in touch, and give whatever you are able.

They’ll be thrilled to take that call. I guarantee it.

Holiday reminder: beware of charity scams

The holiday season is a time when many people think about ways to help those in need. However, scam artists have been known to exploit this tendency and set up fraudulent charities to skim money from generous people.

Never give money or personal information to a person who calls, emails or approaches you out of the blue. If you receive a request to donate, research the charity before you respond. www.bbb.org and www.charitynavigator.org are a great place to start.

Beware of charities with names that are similar to well-known organizations, and never make a check out to an individual. Also never make a check out to “CAS,” no matter what “CAS” allegedly stands for; a crook has simply to add an “H” and they’ve got a check from you made out to “CASH.”

Better yet, decide now which charities you’d like to support, and make your donation early. When asked to donate to others, politely explain that you’ve completed your budgeted giving for the year.

T’is the season for another article about charity scams

To many people, this time of year is synonymous with “giving.”

It’s a season that brings out the best in us; we give thanks, we give gifts, and we give to those who are less fortunate than we.

However, it’s also a season that brings out the worst in others. They know a lot of people are in a giving sort of mood, and they take advantage of it. It seems like for every charity providing money and services to those in need, there is at least one organization whose primary mission is to line its own pockets. So how do you avoid charity scams during the holidays and throughout the year?

One of the best ways to give is to simply decide ahead of time which organizations you’re donating to this year, and make your contribution by contacting them directly. When a representative of another charity approaches or calls, simply explain that you’ve already made your contributions for the year. Many people give in this way, so they should be polite and accept your answer. A rude or hostile response is a sign of a charity that isn’t on the up-and-up.

You can also donate something other than money. Clothing and food are always popular items, or you can choose to help out where it is needed. Ask around—I can guarantee somebody needs you somewhere. Plus, donations of time and effort can be more rewarding than monetary giving, as they can bring new experiences and face-to-face contact with the people you’re helping.

Be wary of charities that contact you by email, unless you’ve given in the past and provided this information. Unsolicited email is always pretty sketchy to begin with; clicking on a link and providing credit card or other information can lead you straight into identity theft. However, if you gave to an organization before and provided your email, they may use it to contact you in the future, since it saves money on postage.

If someone approaches you in person or calls, be sure to ask what percentage of funds goes to the people the charity serves. A legitimate charity should expect this question and equip its callers, whether volunteers or paid employees, to answer it truthfully. The question is almost a litmus test in itself—every organization has operating expenses, so an answer like “100%” probably isn’t true, and as always a hostile or evasive response is a sign of a crooked charity. Ask for information to be sent to you, or ask for a website address, because you’re not going to give your credit card information to someone over the phone no matter who they claim to be, are you?

Donating by check is better than cash, because it gives you a way to track your donation. However, writing a check also puts your checking account number into someone else’s hands. If you trust the organization, that’s your call to make, but for an extra level of safety a cashier’s check is even better—even a legitimate charity can misplace a check or have its office burglarized. Finally, when it comes to checks, always make the check out to the charity, not an individual, and never trust anyone who tries to get you to make a check out to “CAS,” no matter what the initials supposedly stand for. All a thief has to do is add an “H” and they’ve got a check, from you, made out to “CASH.”

Do your homework before you give a single dime to anyone. Check out charities with the Better Business Bureau or Charity Navigator. Don’t assume that nonprofit status means anything, since crooked charities hide behind this designation. Finally, pay attention to the name of the charity—the difference between “Foundation” and “Fund” can be the difference between helping those in need and helping a thief buy a spare Jaguar.

Make-a-Wish Foundation Scam

I just learned about this one from ABC News, by way of Scam Victims United: apparently someone has been calling people telling them they’ve won a sweepstakes sponsored by the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which turns out to be another case of advance fee fraud. Victims report having lost thousands of dollars to this scheme.

Three observations about this scam:

  1. I’ve never heard of a charity running any kind of sweepstakes. I’m not saying it never happens, but usually these organizations ask you for money; they don’t hand it out to random people.
  2. You have to enter a sweepstakes, drawing, raffle or lottery in order to win a sweepstakes, drawing, raffle or lottery. When it comes to rules that define how the physical universe operates, this one is right up there with relativity and Newton’s laws.
  3. I really can’t think of a sleazier way to run a scam than by using the Make-a-Wish Foundation name. These crooks really are just the worst type of people.

Once again, the old common-sense maxim applies: if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Also, if you’ve really won something, never pay in advance to claim your prize. That’s one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Chile Earthquake Scams: yet another preemptive strike.

I don’t think you’d need to be a rocket surgeon to guess that Chile Earthquake Scams are already well underway. I once posed the hypothetical, “How long does it take a crook to turn something into a scam, four minutes?”

Turns out I wasn’t giving the con artists enough credit. My new estimate is 30 seconds.

The same rules apply here as when dealing with possible Haiti Earthquake Scams. Be extremely wary of unsolicited charity donations. The best way to help is to contact your favorite organization first and turn down all other requests.

There is a short article on the topic at Scambusters that identifies a couple additional threats beyond fake charities, and both involve malware.

Basically, if a stranger sends you alleged photos of the earthquake damage, do not open these attachments because they are infected with a virus. In fact, don’t even open the message at all. There is plenty of footage coming in through official news sources.

Also, beware of fake news stories that come up in search engines. These can lead to websites that are infected with malware as well. According to the Scambusters article, these sites were up within hours of the earthquake. Just go directly to your favorite news source’s website and get your information from there. Many will even have a list of trustworthy resources if you want to donate to relief efforts.

Haiti earthquake relief: texting to donate.

I think it’s pretty cool that technology has come to a point where you can now donate money to help victims of a natural disaster by texting a single word to a number (the charges show up on your cellular bill).

At the very least, it demonstrates that text messaging can be used for something beyond teenage cyberbullying and ZOMG-ing.

I know of two confirmed, legitimate ways to donate this way. The first is by texting HAITI to 90999. This number was set up by the American Red Cross, and will add $10 to your next bill.

The other is by texting YELE to 501501. This will donate $5 through Wyclef Jean’s Yéle Haiti Foundation. Jean is a native of Haiti, and he set up the Foundation in 2005.

These are the good guys.

However, you know there are going to be some people who try to turn a profit from this technology. It may not be as easy as setting up a fake website, but there are plenty of companies that are willing to do that which is skeevy, and are already set up with “text X to Y to get Z” services.

Most likely what will happen is a bunch of not-so-charitable charities will set up numbers that are similar to the real ones, and end up donating 1% of their income from the campaign.

You know those ads for ringtones that MTV is literally lousy with these days? I wouldn’t put it past some of those companies to set up a mostly-fake Haiti earthquake charity. They’ll probably sign you up for some $20/month “Worst Music in the Universe Ringtones” service while they’re at it.

Seriously, if you’re considering donating in this way, my first advice is to just use the two numbers listed above. Or you could skip the texting and donate online (is that the “old fashioned way” already?):

If you see a “text to donate” number that isn’t one of the two I mentioned above, be very cautious. Check it out before you do anything, and read the fine print carefully. Google exists. Use it.

And, seriously, if the word “ringtone” appears anywhere in the request or in the fine print, it’s one of those scummy companies (scumpanies?) whose commercials make MTV unwatchable. Well, that and the execrable programming.

Haiti Earthquake Scams: another preemptive strike.

I haven’t seen any specific scams of this type yet, so think of this as one of those “you know it’s going to happen, so be prepared” moments: The FBI is already warning consumers about possible Haiti Earthquake Scams. Le sigh.

Here’s the deal—if you get an unsolicited (you didn’t request it) email requesting donations for victims of the recent Haitian earthquake, or if someone contacts you via social networks (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc.) asking for help, just don’t respond. The odds that it is a scam are just too high to risk it.

If you are approached by a charity you believe is legitimate, ask lots of questions. If they’re honest, they won’t mind providing information. However, I still wouldn’t donate to these requests, either.

If you really want to help, contact an organization you already know and trust, and donate without them asking you first. Make sure you’ve got the name of the organization correct before you act—scam charities sometimes change one small word in the name of a well-known charity in an attempt to confuse people.

There is a long list of organizations involved in relief efforts here, from MSNBC. I’m not familiar with most of these, and I’m not endorsing any one in particular or vouching for what they do.

We are in an age where every natural disaster, every new government action and every new technology is immediately assimilated by criminals looking for easy money. If you want to help out in Haiti, contact your favorite charity today. Don’t wait for someone to ask.

Avoid charity scams this holiday season.

The holiday season is a time when concept of “giving” seems to come up a lot.

Hey, I’m all for it, too. Every single one of us, without exception, has something we could use to help someone else in our community, our country, or our world (“We are all connected,” after all). If “giving” was my main topic today, I would probably mention that there are people in need all year round, not just during November and December, but since it’s not, I won’t.

Instead, I’m going to talk about charity scams.

You see, two forces collide during the holiday season:

  1. The fact that a lot of people are thinking about “giving” more than usual
  2. The fact that there are people in the world who will do literally anything to line their own pockets.

It’s sort of a perfect storm.

However, there are some incredibly easy steps you can take to make sure you’re donating dollars to people who are in actual need, instead of donating to some crook’s wallet.

First, you could just decide ahead of time which charity or charities you’re going to support, and contact them yourself. If other organizations ask for donations, simply explain that you’ve already given what you had budgeted for the year. Legitimate charities will understand. Anybody who won’t accept this explanation is not to be trusted.

Secondly, consider donating something other than money. Food banks (like this one) can almost always use someone to help out at their distribution centers for a few hours, and there’s always the classic “helping out at the Soup Kitchen” scenario. Call or email organizations in your area and find out what sort of in-kind donations they’re looking for.

These two methods of giving are pretty safe. Scammers are looking for the easy money—they’re not going to set up an entire working food bank in hopes of skimming a few hundred dollars. However, there always seem to be a lot of opportunities that spring up on the spur of the moment this time of year.

First off, be cautious of charities that contact you via email. Most legitimate charities aren’t going to seek new donors this way. However, if you’ve given to an organization before, they might use email, since it saves them money on postage. Still, never respond directly to an email soliciting donations—use the organization’s official website or phone number, which you should use a source other than the email message (phonebook, Internet search, etc.) to find.

Always ask what percentage of your donation goes to help whoever the charity is supposed to help. If they’re on the up-and-up, they won’t mind the question. An angry or otherwise negative answer is a warning sign.

Donating by check is recommended over cash, as it gives you a way to track your donation for tax deduction purposes. However, never make the check out to a person—always write it to the organization.

I would also suggest going one extra step and paying by cashier’s check, to keep your checking account number out of general circulation, but if it’s an organization you trust, you can make that call yourself.

Watch out for fake charities using names that sound similar to real ones. Sometimes the difference between “foundation” and “center” can mean the difference between your money being used for the greater good, or just ending up in some dirtbag’s pocket.

Check out any charity with the Better Business Bureau before you donate, and I would also suggest doing a general Internet search. Sometimes you’ll find “Scrooge Lists” that call out charities who only pass on a tiny portion of their proceeds to the people they’re supposed to be helping. Be especially wary of any organization that claims to be raising money for disabled or retired police officers or firefighters or their families. A lot of these so-called charities are scams, plain and simple. What would you call a charity that keeps over 98% of its proceeds? 

Finally, as a general rule, never respond to an unsolicited charity request without doing some homework first, no matter who the person contacting you claims to be. Know who you’re donating to before you send a single dime.

Once you’ve verified that you’re dealing with a legitimate charity, however, have at it—give as generously as your conscience dictates.