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Ask the Experts

Avoid Earthquake Relief Scams for Japan

Safely get your money to where it's needed

En español | Q. I'd like to donate money for the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan. But I've heard that scammers are setting up scam charities. How can I donate safely?

A. You're right to be concerned. After natural disasters, fraudsters always try to profit from the good intentions of Americans. With heartbreaking images from Japan dominating the news in recent days, U.S. law enforcement officials have been quick to issue warnings about scam charities.

Of course, there are many legitimate organizations that are soliciting donations specifically for victims in Japan. The better-known names include the American Red Cross, World Vision, Save the Children and Mercy Corps. Many others — legitimate and otherwise — are expected to join the effort.

In the most common version of the bad kind, cyber-crooks set up donation websites that appear legitimate. The goal is to collect not only donors' money, but also their credit card information for later use in identity theft.

Japan relief

— Kyodo News/AP Photo

These sites sometimes have Internet addresses that are similar to those of trusted websites. For example, a site might have the address redcross.com instead of the authentic American Red Cross website, redcross.org.

Another common trick is to send e-mails with attachments or links that promise to show photographs or video of the disaster but actually download computer viruses to your machine. You can check the website Spam Mail Spam Blocker, which is tracking such e-mails.

The come-ons can also reach you as links on legitimate websites or search engine result pages — scammers know the techniques of getting search engines to notice and list their sites.

So here's how to ensure your donations are properly used — for Japan or other countries that may be hit by disasters:

Online

  • Be cautious of e-mails that claim to be from charities or that promise links to photographs or video of disaster areas. Unless you previously made a donation to a particular group, and provided it with your e-mail address, delete any incoming e-mails seeking a donation.

  • To find a charity's website and donate, don't click on a link that you see on a website or an e-mail. Instead, type the charity's name into a search engine. Legitimate nonprofits' Internet addresses typically end in ".org," not ".com."

  • Do not donate via requests on Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites. Scammers can be behind those appeals as well.

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