Hurricane Harvey was the first substantial hurricane to make landfall in the United States in more than 12 years. The devastation it created has left many with absolutely nothing. With Hurricane Irma on the horizon, Florida may also be in an emergency situation soon. Thankfully, good Samaritans from all over the country are donating money to help the disaster relief efforts. In times like these, it is hard to believe that there are people out there that would take advantage of the kindness of many trying to help those in desperate need. Sadly, it does happen, for example when scam artists create fake charities to use disaster relief donations for their own financial gain.

Hurricane Katrina offered many examples of individuals taking advantage of a disaster, yielding more than 1,300 eventually being indicted for scams related to the disaster and over 36,000 related complaints filed. An example of such a scam was AirKatrina.com, a website that fraudulently collected $40,000 in charitable donations intended for humanitarian relief to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, before being shut down.  

The US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) has warned users “to remain vigilant for malicious cyber activity seeking to capitalize on interest in Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Users are advised to exercise caution in handling any email with subject line, attachments, or hyperlinks related to either Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma, even if it appears to originate from a trusted source. Fraudulent emails will often contain links or attachments that direct users to phishing or malware-infected websites. Emails requesting donations from duplicitous charitable organizations commonly appear after major natural disasters.”

Sitejabber offers the following tips for avoiding charitable donation scams:

  1. Beware of fake charity websites set up to take advantage of those looking to donate for a recent disaster. After every major disaster, fake websites are created to take advantage of people looking online for ways to donate. For example, after the Haiti earthquake, which claimed more than 300,000 lives, fake sites such as www.haitidonations.com were set up to take the donations of the unsuspecting and many Sitejabber members quickly voiced their concern. “Unbelievable how low some people will sink. A fake Haiti earthquake relief site? Simply astounding the depths of human greed.” – Sophie N
  2. Never give a charity money via a wire transfer service such as Western Union or MoneyGram. Reputable charities never request money by wire transfer. If you can, use a credit card or an online service which offers fraud protection, like PayPal.
  3. Soliciting money on behalf of a “charity” is almost always a scam. Never give out personal information, such as your social security number, home address, etc. to someone calling you to ask for a donation, as this is almost certain to be a scam.
  4. Be sure to investigate how all donations will be used by an organization. Sites such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar can help you find out more information on specific charities. “Before you give your hard-earned money to an organization, you should pop their name into this site for a quick overview and rating. I learned that some of the organizations I was giving to were spending almost half of every dollar donated in advertising and administration fees! Needless to say, the non-profit CEOs making over $150,000 a year no longer get my money! It also suggests charities with higher scores or similar interests.” – Kelsey M   
  5. Be wary of personal crowdfunding campaigns. It’s typically suggested to only donate to crowdfunding campaigns that have been set up for or by people you know. Since that isn’t always possible in situations like disaster relief, if you do decide to give to a fundraiser benefitting someone you don’t know, do your research. Check the campaign manager’s Facebook page to ensure the story checks out or reach out to them directly for verification.

If you discover any of these types of scams please submit a review on Sitejabber and be sure to report it immediately to The Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP or ftc.gov/complaint

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises that the best way to help after a disaster is to make cash donations to trusted organizations. National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster offers a list of verified disaster-relief charities and describes itself as an “association of organizations that mitigate and alleviate the impact of disasters.” Other legitimate charities to consider include: The Salvation Army, The United Way, The American Red Cross and Americares.