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Charity Scams

Individual Americans contributed a record $319.04 billion to charity in 2022, according to the Giving USA Foundation’s annual report on U.S. philanthropy. This generosity supports many amazing organizations that put those billions to work for health care, education, environmental protection, the arts and many other causes.

Unfortunately, it also opens a door for scammers, who capitalize on donors’ goodwill to line their pockets.

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Some charity fraud involves faux fundraising for veterans and disaster relief. Scammers know how readily we open our hearts and wallets to those who served and those rebuilding their lives after hurricanes, earthquakes or wildfires. Charity scammers are especially active during the holidays, the biggest giving season of the year. 

Some sham charities succeed by mimicking the real thing. Like genuine nonprofits, they reach you via telemarketing, direct mail, email and door-to-door solicitations. They might make appeals on social media and create well-designed websites with deceptive names. (Cybersecurity firm DomainTools noted a huge jump in website registrations with the words “Ukraine” and “Ukrainian” in the days after Russia’s invasion of that country, for example.)

Video: 4 Ways to Avoid a Charity Scam

Many operate fully outside the law; others are in fact registered nonprofits but devote little of the money they raise to the programs they promote. Some create massive fundraising networks, often in the form of political action committees (PACs) — entities that can solicit money on behalf of charities or political candidates/causes — that they use as cover while requesting donations purportedly for various causes. Then they keep the bulk of the cash themselves. Two men who created PACs (including one called Americans for the Cure of Breast Cancer), Richard Zeitlin and Robert Piaro, were recently arrested and indicted on charges of colluding in a multiyear scheme in which they allegedly stole millions of dollars from misled donors.

With a little research and a few precautions, you can help ensure your donations go to organizations that are genuinely serving others, not helping themselves.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Warning signs

  • Pressure to give immediately. A legitimate charity will welcome your donation whenever you choose to make it.
  • A thank-you for a donation you don’t recall making. Making you think you’ve already given to the cause is a common tactic unscrupulous fundraisers use.
  • A request for payment by cash, gift card or wire transfer. These are scammers’ favored payment methods because the money is easy to access and difficult to trace.

How to protect yourself from scams

  • Check how watchdogs such as Charity NavigatorCharityWatch and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance rate an organization before you make a donation, and contact your state’s charity regulator to verify that the organization is registered to raise money there.
  • Do your own research online. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends searching for a charity’s name or a cause you want to support (for example, “animal welfare” or “homeless kids”) with terms such as “highly rated charity,” “complaints” and “scam.”
  • Pay attention to the charity’s name and web address. Scammers often mimic the names of familiar, trusted organizations to deceive donors.
  • Keep a record of your donations and regularly review your credit card account to make sure you weren’t charged more than you agreed to give or unknowingly signed up for a recurring donation.
  • Don’t give personal and financial information such as your Social Security number, date of birth or bank account number to anyone soliciting a donation. Scammers use that data to steal money and identities.
  • Don’t click on links in unsolicited email, texts or fundraising messages on social media platforms; they can unleash malware.
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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.