Photo credit: Texas Army National Guard
In 2017, three of the five costliest hurricanes in U.S. history – Harvey, Irma and Maria – cost an estimated $285 billion dollars worth of damage. People nationwide reached into their pockets and donated goods and money to charities. Houston Texans player J.J. Watt’s fundraiser for Hurricane Harvey relief pulled in $41.6 million – a bit over his goal of $200,000. It was the largest crowd-sourced fundraiser in history.
The Hand to Hand Hurricane Relief telethon raised $44 million for the victims of Hurricane Irma. And there were several fundraisers for the victims of Hurricane Maria, including one helmed by five former presidents, one by former MLB player Carlos Beltran, and a unique one from late night host Stephen Colbert.
After being slammed with three catastrophic hurricanes in the span of less than a month, people might experience “disaster fatigue” – something scammers behind fake charities and shady crowdfunding projects may be counting on.
Scammers and fraudsters are gearing up to take advantage of well-meaning people as the 2018 hurricane season begins, with NOAA's Climate Prediction Center forecasting 75 percent chance of near or above normal storms. It’s important to verify any organization before donating to them - both to protect yourself, and to make sure you money goes to those that need it most. Here’s how to make sure your donations go to real victims.
1. Verify Charities
As President Reagan once said, “Trust but Verify”. There are some really great industry bodies out there that track nonprofit organizations. Before you give to a charity (especially if it’s not an organization you’ve heard of before), look them up using one of these industry groups:
Each of these organizations verifies charities in the US and tracks their performance, which means you can be sure your money is going to a trusted organization that will use it efficiently.
If you come across a fundraising ask on social media, it pays to be extra cautious. Pay attention to where the link to donate takes you - it could be taking you to a fake donation page. If possible, you should always donate directly on the organization’s website, or via Facebook’s donate feature.” This Facebook feature is only available to certified 501c3 charitable organizations.
Finally, make sure you get a receipt including the organization name, your name, and amount donated.
2. Be Wary of Crowdfunding Sites:
Unfortunately, a heart-rending story linking to a crowdfunding page is a classic scammer technique. While I’d recommend donating to established organizations, if you must donate to a crowdfunding campaign, there are ways to make sure your money will be spent as advertised.
- Try and link the campaign to a real person & check their credentials: Most crowdfunding sites require the creator have a Facebook page. However, it’s easy to create fake social media pages too. Dig into the page a little: do the friends seem real? Do the posts on their timeline, pictures, etc. seem real? See if this person has a presence on other common social media websites (LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.). Finding the person behind the crowdfunding campaign will help make sure the person you’re donating to is being honest about their story.
- Check out other crowdfunding services: See if the same person is trying to raise money on other sites, or if other people are using the same story to ask for donations. If you see the story or the person show up elsewhere that’s a big red flag.
3. Don’t Trust Unsolicited Emails, Texts, or Phone Calls
If you get texts, emails, or calls from an organization asking for donations, you should be cautious. Scammers have been known to use harvested contact information in the wake of a catastrophe to take advantage of of people’s good-will.
Don’t follow links in emails or texts or donate over the phone. Go straight to that organization’s website to give directly to them. Scammers sometimes pretend to be well-known organizations like the Red Cross, even going so far as to build fake versions of a real charity organization’s website to harvest personal information.
If you’re unfamiliar with the organization contacting you, try and verify them using the industry groups listed above. You should also look for signs on their website and donation page that they are legitimate. There should be a padlock icon in the address bar (or “https” in the URL), and they should only be asking you for basic information. A charity website will never ask you for your Social Security Number, or full bank account details - if they do, they may be attempting to drain your bank account or compromise your identity.
4. Watch Out for Opportunistic Websites
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Charities that seem overly opportunistic usually are. Red flags that indicate a scam include titles or URLs that closely match the terms you were searching, or charity initiatives with overly specific names.
Always look for secure donation pages and be on the lookout for phishing operations. Scam charity websites sometimes use names and URLs similar to those of real organizations to try and seem legitimate. Check for small differences in the name or things like “.com” vs “.org”, or for excessively long URLs. Always verify a website or organization before giving out personal information. Again, I’d recommend further checking any organization you’re thinking about donating to on the verification registries listed earlier in this post.
5. Donate to Trusted Local Charities
If you’re at all unsure about where to donate, look for local, grassroots organizations. Generally, these organizations have good community relationships and can often navigate the specifics of assistance and relief better because of them.
There you have it! Being cautious when giving out information (or, of course, money) online is important, but don’t let scammers scare you. Harvey has thousands of real victims who need your support, and donating your time, money, or resources is honorable and appreciated. If you follow these tips you should be able to give your money confidently and safely.
About Danny Boice:
Danny Boice is the co-founder and CEO of Trustify, the first technology platform linking people to experienced investigators on-demand. Proud father of 5 (plus a dog!) he started Trustify with his wife Jen in 2015 after personally dealing with the difficulties of finding a good investigator in a hurry. Danny’s journey as an entrepreneur and journalist includes founding Speek, a conference call service, as well as serving as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and being featured in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and The Wall Street Journal (to name a few). Danny and Jen believe in the positive power of private investigators and are actively engaged in partnerships with a variety of nonprofits including Becky’s Fund, an organization devoted to helping the victims of domestic violence.
Catch up with Danny Boice's latest writings on Medium.