In the wake of natural disasters or other traumatic events around the world, the first reaction of many good citizens is to say, “How can I help?” You may be thinking the same thing about the massive earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria in recent days, killing at least 20,000 people and injuring tens of thousands. But officials are warning would-be donors that criminals may try to play on your sympathies for their own profit by touting fake charities.
“Tragedies like this create a prime opportunity for scammers to impersonate charities and other organizations to take advantage of your good will,” Michelle H. Seagull, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “We encourage everyone to do their research and be cautious when choosing where and how to give.”
Other consumer advocates are echoing her message: “We all see the devastation on the news and feel helpless,” says Amy Nofziger, who oversees the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360). “And since most of us can’t do any of the recovery efforts that need to be done, we want to give of our resources, but criminals will exploit our generous nature to want to help and have you to donate to their sham charities.”
Nofziger and others familiar with charity scams have tips to help ensure that your gift will benefit a good cause — not a con artist.
1. Do your homework
“Investigate before you invest,” says Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance monitors and evaluates charities; visit its site to find reports on your chosen cause. Other watchdogs include the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch (www.charitywatch.org), Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) and GuideStar (www.guidestar.org).
2. Know the warning signs for fraud
A genuine charity won’t protest if you ask for time to think things over or conduct due diligence. Nofziger says it’s a red flag if a person or group making an appeal is “not willing to give a straight answer.”
When the phone rings and you’re pressured to give, “caution is the watchword,” the Federal Communications Commission advises. “If an unsolicited call seems suspicious, or you feel a caller is trying to strong-arm you for a donation, hang up and don’t answer if you get a call back. There are plenty of legitimate charities with which you can initiate contact.”
The National Do Not Call Registry (www.donotcall.gov), applies to telemarketers; on the other hand, nonprofits calling potential donors do not need to check if your phone number is on the list, the FCC says, though you can ask a charity to stop calling you and it must comply. “Legitimate charities will respect your request, but scam callers won’t,” the agency cautions.