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Three Tips to Avoid Charity Scams this Holiday Season

Photo of author, Kathleen McDermott.
Kathleen McDermott
Business Development Manager and Director of Nonprofit Advisory Services

It’s officially the holiday season – a time of family, friends, and recognition of our blessings. It’s also a time that many generously choose to donate to their favorite charities.

Certainly, there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of worthy causes to consider when making your year-end charitable donations list – and now, even more so with the devastating California wildfires, tragic shootings at One Tree Life Synagogue (Pittsburgh, PA) and Borderline Bar and Grill (Thousand Oaks, CA), and the devastation brought forth by Hurricane Florence and other 2018 natural disasters.

It’s times like this when we hope goodness prevails and America comes together to help those who are hurting the most. Unfortunately, this is also the time when those with unscrupulous motives prey on the unsuspecting. While we would hope we could spot a charity scam, sometimes it’s difficult − especially when it’s one that pulls at our heart strings.

Case in point: You’ve likely heard about the GoFundMe scam involving a New Jersey woman, her boyfriend, and a homeless veteran who allegedly concocted an emotional story about the veteran giving his last $20 to the woman so she could fill her empty gas tank, as she sat helplessly on I-95 near Philadelphia. In thanks for his supposed kindness, the couple set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for the veteran; the photo of the woman and the veteran went viral on social media, and the story was even shared on many national news outlets.

However, a recent police investigation unveiled that of the $400,000 raised from public donations, all but $75,000 was kept by the couple and allegedly used to fund lavish trips and their purchase of a new BMW. Authorities also say the couple would have likely gotten away with the fraud had the veteran not filed suit against the couple stating he didn't receive all of the GoFundMe donations. If found guilty, all three could each serve up to 5-10 years in prison.

Sadly there have been other GoFundMe scams in recent years, but not to the level seen in the case above. To learn more, visit the GoFundMe watchdog site, gofraudme.

To ensure you don’t get duped by a charity scam this holiday season, do your due diligence before making a donation. Check out these three tips offered by the Federal Trade Commission:

Tip #1: Do Online Research

  • If you’re looking for a charity to support, search online using key terms like “hurricane relief” or “highest rated charity”
  • If you’re considering donating to a specific charity, search its name plus words like “complaint,” “rating,” or “scam.”
  • Consult professional organizations to help you research the legitimacy of a charity: BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, CharityWatch, and GuideStar.

Tip #2: Be Careful How You Pay the Charity

  • If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money, don't do it. That’s how scammers ask you to pay.
  • To be safer, pay by credit card or check.
  • It’s a good practice to keep a record of all donations. Review your statements closely to make sure you’re only charged the amount you agreed to donate – and that you’re not signed up to make a recurring donation.
  • Before clicking on a link to donate online, make sure you know who is receiving your donation. Read Donating Through an Online Giving Portal for more information.

Tip #3: Be Aware of Scammers’ Tricks

  • Don’t let anyone rush you into making a donation — that’s something scammers do.
  • Some scammers try to trick you into paying them by thanking you for a donation that you never made.
  • Scammers can change caller ID to make a call look like it’s from a local area code.
  • Some scammers use names that sound a lot like the names of real charities; an important reason why it pays to do some research before giving.
  • Scammers make many vague and sentimental claims but give no specifics about how your donation will be used.
  • Bogus organizations may claim that your donation is tax-deductible when it's not.
  • Guaranteeing sweepstakes winnings in exchange for a donation is not only a scam, it’s illegal.

And, if you are scammed, be sure to report it immediately to both the FTC and to your state charity regulator and share any information you have about the organization (e.g. name, contact information, and details of fundraiser).


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