En español | After tragedy strikes — be it flooding in Florida or a tornado in the midwest — expect two immediate reactions: Well-intentioned people will want to give donations. And scammers will want to take them.
Within hours of any disaster, charity scams go into full swing. Even before Superstorm Sandy made landfall, 1,000 new websites with "Sandy," "relief" or related keyword search terms in them had been registered, many of them by scammers.
Some of the bogus websites seek your credit card number to collect supposed donations, possibly also using that information later for identity theft. Others infect your computer with malware that can ferret out sensitive information, such as your account numbers or passwords.
Fraudsters also do their work by blasting out thousands of spam emails, text messages and phone calls. They get their word out on Facebook and Twitter and even go door-to-door.
"Tragedies inspire people to give," says H. Art Taylor of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance. "After every natural disaster and manmade catastrophe, we see an outpouring of generosity … along with the inevitable scams and frauds. We urge donors to take the time to make sure their donations are going to legitimate charities." Here's how:
1. Check it out
Before donating to a charity, take time to authenticate it. In addition to the Wise Giving Alliance, charity names and reputations can be vetted at Charity Navigator, Charity Watch and GuideStar. You can also contact the agency in your state that regulates charities. Be suspicious of charities not listed or with questionable track records.
2. Don't let them in
Unless you previously donated to an organization and have already provided your contact information, it's wise to assume that an unsolicited donation request by email or phone is a scam. Don't click on links in emails, Facebook or Twitter; they can unleash computer malware.
3. Examine the Web address
When using an Internet search engine to find charities, treat the results pages with caution. Carefully read organizations' Internet addresses before clicking on them. Scammers often create rogue websites with sly misspellings, tweaks or sound-alike names. Also know that legitimate nonprofit organizations typically end in .org, not .com.
4. Don't be enticed by photos
Emails or sketchy websites may have links promising photographs or video of disaster areas. Never click on them. Malware could be the result.
5. If you do entertain requests for money, do so smartly
Don't provide credit card information to a caller, even if your Caller ID indicates it's a legitimate charity (scammers have ways to make whatever number they want appear on your screen). Say no to offers to send a courier to your home to pick up a donation.
Instead, tell the caller to mail you printed information. (If the organization doesn't already have your address, do not provide it. Why tell a strange caller where you live?) Although mailed material is no guarantee of legitimacy, organizations that won't provide it are usually scams. So once you get the paperwork, see if the contact information and mailing address match what you find with your own online search or the verification websites noted above. Or simply look up the number of the charity yourself and call it.
6. Say no to door-to-door solicitors
Front-door solicitors should leave behind printed materials that allow you to vet them before mailing a check or making an online credit card donation. Avoid giving cash to strangers claiming to be collecting for charities.
7. There's no such thing as "all the money goes to charity"
Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations assist victims. All charities have fundraising and administrative costs. Legitimate organizations typically spend up to 35 percent of donations on fundraising and administrative costs (but ideally, less than 25 percent).
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.