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FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER

Charity Scams

Americans contributed more than $410 billion to charity in 2017, according to the Giving USA Foundation’s annual report on U.S. philanthropy. That generosity supports many amazing organizations that put those billions to work for health care, education, environmental protection, the arts and numerous other causes. Unfortunately, it also opens a door for scammers, who capitalize on donors’ goodwill to line their pockets.

Many such frauds involve 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. But charity scams come in all shapes and sizes, from grifts on social media and crowdfunding sites to massive national cons, like the network of bogus cancer charities the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said cheated donors in every state out of $187 million before it was busted in 2015.

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 create well-designed websites with deceptive names. (As hurricanes churn toward landfall, for example, scammers snap up URLs featuring the storm’s name.) Some operate fully outside the law; others are in fact registered nonprofits but devote little of the money they raise to the programs they promote.

Charity scammers are especially active during the holidays, the biggest giving season of the year. But 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.

Warning Signs

  • Pressure to give right now. 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 trick unscrupulous fundraisers use to lower your resistance.
  • Promises that 100 percent of a donation goes to whomever the charity claims to help. All charities have fundraising and administrative costs.

Do's

  • Do check how watchdogs like Charity Navigator and CharityWatch 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 FTC recommends searching for a charity’s name or a cause you want to support (like “animal welfare” or “homeless kids”) with terms such as “highly rated charity,” “complaints” and “scam.”
  • Do pay attention to the charity’s name and web address. Scammers often mimic the names of familiar, trusted organizations to fool donors.
  • Do ask how much of your donation goes to overhead and fundraising. One rule of thumb, used by the Better Business Bureau’s BBB Wise Giving Alliance, is that at least 65 percent of a charity’s total expenses should go directly to serving its mission.
  • Do 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'ts

  • Don’t give personal and financial information like 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 make a donation with cash or by gift card or wire transfer. Credit cards and checks are safer.
  • Don't click on links in unsolicited email, Facebook or Twitter fundraising messages; they can unleash malware.
  • Don’t donate by text without confirming the phone number on the charity’s official website.
  • Don’t assume pleas for help on social media or crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe are legitimate, especially in the wake of disasters. The FTC warns that fraudsters use real victims’ stories and pictures to con people.

AARP Fraud Watch Network

Fight back against frauds and scams! Call our free Fraud Watch helpline at 877-908-3360 to speak with volunteers trained in fraud counseling. You can also sign up for Watchdog Alerts and check out our scam-tracking map.

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Published: Dec. 3, 2018

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