avoid charity scamsDisasters like Hurricane Harvey are terrible reminders of how unexpected and fragile life can be. During times like these, it’s only natural for people to want to reach out to help support disaster relief efforts. Simultaneously, victims themselves will likely want to seek out support. While there are dozens of legitimate charities and resources out there, unfortunately there also exist scammers seeking to take advantage of people’s good intentions by redirecting contributions in order to line their own pockets. As you prepare to donate or as you seek relief for yourself or your family, keep the following in mind.

For charity donors …

Despite your best intentions, your money could end up going to waste if a scammer gets their hands on it. You’ll want to consider the following whenever you’re donating to a cause, especially during a disaster:

Ignore unsolicited requests for donations

Whether it’s a text, phone call, email, tweet or any other social media post, you should be wary of any unsolicited messages, especially those sent directly to you. Legitimate organizations do send such messages, but generally, they include methods to verify the sender’s identity before making such explicit requests. If you feel inclined to donate after receiving one of these messages, make sure you verify its source and donate through the sender’s site directly, rather than through any links or phone numbers provided in the message.

Avoid social media and crowdfunding campaigns

It’s also wise to avoid requests for money over social media or crowdfunding sites. While social media and crowdfunding campaigns aren’t inherently bad, it can be much harder to confirm the legitimacy of fundraisers conducted over these sites. Furthermore, even if these are legitimate, any funds raised usually only go toward benefiting an individual or a single family, as opposed to broader relief efforts.

Use official charity lists and verification tools

During disasters like Hurricane Harvey, news websites, consumer watchdog organizations and agencies like the FTC create lists of websites where consumers can either make donations or search for legitimate charities. Using these lists, as opposed to simply responding to unsolicited requests or clicking on the first ad you see on Google, is absolutely vital to avoiding charity donation scams. You should know that some of these resources, like the BBB’s Give.org, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch and GuideStar are databases that allow you to verify the legitimacy of charities. Use one of these sites to search for charities that you might be less familiar with to view their history and confirm they’re legitimate.

Beware of fake emails and websites

We’ve talked before about phishing and fake domains that use typosquatting, or spelling similarities, to dupe users into giving up personal information. Whenever you seek out a website, make sure you type it into your URL or address bar (and not simply click on links given to you through email or social media). Also, make sure the name of the charity is spelled accurately on the website and in the URL, as scammers often produce a similarly named version to confuse consumers. If you’re not sure what the URL to a specific charity, you can type in “official [charity name] website” on Google to get the charity’s website or use one of the resources linked above.

Know the indicators of a legitimate charity website

Legitimate websites where you can make purchases and donations will have what is known as HTTPS, a form of encryption, which will prevent your web activity from being eavesdropped on. Under absolutely no circumstances should you share financial or personal information on a site without HTTPS encryption, as it’s a telltale sign that something is amiss. Additionally, when making a monetary donation, you should be given the option of using your credit card which will allow you to reverse transactions should something go awry. Requests to send money through wiring, gift cards, Bitcoin or other less traceable forms of payment should arouse suspicion, as should requests for information beyond your payment details, such as your social security number. Keep in mind that legitimate charity websites should display their tax status so that you can know whether or not donations are tax deductible. Finally, beware of any websites or charities which include an excessive sense of urgency in their messaging or make multiple requests for you to donate. This kind of behavior is usually indicative of a scam.

Keep an eye out for everyday opportunities to donate

It’s very likely that companies and services that are part of your life already offer opportunities for you to donate to causes. For example, if you work for a large company, it may have internal resources for identifying charities it works with or vouches for. Local supermarket chains also might allow you to donate a portion of your purchases toward a cause or charity. Your ride-sharing service, like Lyft, may also offer you an option to donate. Whenever you’re making a purchase somewhere or using a service, be on the lookout for such opportunities. Finally, you might want to consider making direct donations to organizations that you trust. By building your own preferred list of organizations and sticking to it, or opting to donate through a third-party company or brand you trust, you can avoid getting scammed.

For disaster victims …

Donors aren’t the only ones who scammers target. Disaster victims’ circumstances can be made even worse should they fall prey to any of the schemes targeting them. Here’s what they’ll need to be on the lookout for:

Don’t look for assistance over anonymous services

As with donors, victims should stick to navigating compiled lists of charities and services supporting the disaster relief effort. Though sites like Craigslist can be useful for getting replacement items, temporary housing and sometimes even services, it might not be worth it. While no one expects to get scammed, individuals who aren’t recovering from a disaster are in better shape to take on the risks that come with using these anonymous sites.

Don’t accept offers for unsolicited services

It’s possible that any messages targeting you or others in your situation could be legitimate, but more than not many organizations and services helping out disaster victims have their hands full, especially right after the disaster. As such, they likely wouldn’t selectively reach out to specific individuals. To ensure you don’t get scammed, you should search for organizations and services on your own and reach out to them directly. For example, FEMA has emergency contact information for Hurricane Harvey victims and the American Red Cross has a whole section of its site dedicated to helping disaster victims. It should also be noted that there are government websites, like DisasterAssistance.gov, to help you find assistance in your area.

When disaster strikes, communities often band together to provide services and help to those who have fallen victim. While any donation helps, it’s important to make sure your donating to a legitimate charity and not a scammer. For more information on avoiding scams and staying safe online, keep reading our scams blog.