It didn’t take long for scammers and cheats to slither out from under their rocks following the Las Vegas massacre and the wildfires in Northern California’s wine country.
Fraudsters have historically taken advantage of people desiring to contribute money to victims of disasters, and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Northern Nevada is issuing warnings to the public to be on the lookout for those planning to cheat individuals making donations to causes they believe will send their funds to those in need.
“Sadly, scammers often take advantage of those moments of vulnerability to deceive donors. In addition, there are often campaigns set up by well-meaning individuals, who may or may not be directly connected to the tragedy, that will not get the donations to the people in need,” according to Tim Johnston, president of the Northern Nevada BBB chapter.
Scammers and cheaters rely on the public’s generosity, charity and often innocence, in times of disaster. We feel helpless and overwhelmed when confronted with the misfortunes of others, including misfortunates who live overseas. We let our guard down. We open our wallets to the needy. But we must be careful to do our research and “due diligence” before handing over our hard-earned cash to strangers intent on conning us.
Johnston said we must check out any charity, which says it will send our money to disaster victims, in order to avoid donating to a questionable or poorly managed effort. Visit Give.org to verify if a charity meets the BBB Standards for Charitable Accountability. Also, keep in mind that some crowdfunding sites “do very little vetting of individuals who appeal for financial assistance after a tragedy or disaster. It is often difficult for donors to verify the trustworthiness of crowdfunding requests for support,” added Johnston.
Be alert for how donations will be used, such as vague appeals that don’t identify the intended use of funds. For example: How will donations directly affect victims and victims’ families? Will the money collected swiftly be spent? Will the appeal for money identify where the funds will be used? Does the charity or crowdfunding operation have a working landline telephone number, a legitimate physical (NOT post office) address and e-mail address?
Be wary of persons claiming to be among those individuals or families that have been negatively affected by disasters. Are they legitimate? Can they prove it? How will they spend the money you send them? There have been several notable cases uncovered as hoaxes by the media in recent years that tell of persons claiming they or family members are dying of rare diseases and need money for medical care. It may sound harsh, but I wouldn’t believe any of these appeals unless the BBB or other legitimate source checked it out forward, backward, inside and out!
The BBB also cautions the public not to check on links to charities on unfamiliar websites or in text messages or e-mail. They may take you to a look-alike website where you will be asked to provide personal financial information, or they may download harmful malware onto your computer. Don’t assume that charities recommended on social media have already been vetted. I am continuously amazed and shocked when learning that persons I believe are mature and cautious give out their banking, social security and credit card information to total strangers on the Web or telephone, in the mail or to people asking for money at the front door.
You also should make sure that the charitable cause you are sending money to has federal tax deductibility. Not all organizations collecting funds to allegedly assist tragedy victims are tax exempt under section 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Code. If they are not tax exempt, this could raise a red flag. Be cautious here.
The BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance, said Johnston, is a reliable source for checking on charities because it seeks to verify the trustworthiness of nationally-soliciting charities by completing rigorous evaluations based on 20 “holistic standards” that address charity governance, effectiveness of financial reporting and fund raising, accuracy of appeals and other major issues.
Persons I know and like have been scammed by charities. Several have been scammed again and again. They’re well-meaning but gullible. They’ll succumb to telephone appeals from sobbing “victims.” They fall for fake photos of injured victims sent via mail or e-mail. Many legitimate causes also use such photos in their appeals, but these causes also have been been carefully vetted and approved by organizations such as the BBB.
Before you donate to any charity, learn about its background, reputation, governance and effectiveness. What percentage of the funds it collects goes to its stated cause, fundraising and executives’ salaries? I’m certain many readers of this column have read about the massive salaries paid to some charity executives as well as their expensive hotel stays, first-class air travel and meals taken at fancy restaurants. Does this sicken you as much as it sickens me?
For those seeking further information about fund-raising scams and other related issues, Tim Johnston of the Northern Nevada BBB may be reached at (775) 322-0657, firstname.lastname@example.org, or at the organization’s offices at 4834 Sparks Blvd., Suite 102, Sparks, NV 89436-8157.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News & Fallon Eagle-Standard.