When natural disasters strike, Americans pour in money and support to help the victims.
But while relief efforts are uplifting, they come with a caveat for anyone looking to contribute: How can you give money safely and securely to people who need it most?
Fundraising scams and fake charities often show up after hurricanes and other disasters. These practices aren’t new either — less than six months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, the FBI had opened 100 investigations into fraudulent fundraising sites.
“After disasters like this, we do often see more organizations popping up, and it does take some time if there are scams out there to identify what they are,” says Katelynn Rusnock, the advisory system manager for Charity Navigator, an independent charity watchdog organization. Based in Glen Rock, N.J., Rusnock specializes in communicating potential wrongdoing found within charities.
So how can you make sure you’re not donating to a fake organization? Here are five ways to avoid fundraising scams.
1. Make sure the charity is legitimate with charity tracking sites
Learn about the organization before you give away any of your money, Rusnock recommends. Charity Navigator, and similar sites such as CharityWatch and GuideStar, maintain up-to-date listings of registered nonprofits, which you can use to check whether or not an organization is legitimate.
When in doubt, Rusnock suggests giving to larger nonprofits that have contributed to previous major disasters.
“Larger organizations that often respond to disasters are usually fairly equipped to deal with these types of things,” she says. “They have the teams with the expertise, and they’ve got the experience to do this well.”
2. Look up their employer identification number on the IRS website
You also can look up charities by checking their Employer Identification Number (EIN), which will show if they’re registered with the Internal Revenue Service. Rusnock says you should be able to find this number on an organization’s website, and recommends asking them directly if it isn’t readily available. To help verify these groups, the IRS has created a tool on its website for searching charities by their EIN.
3. Check scam alerts from the Federal Trade Commission
Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission frequently updates a list of scam alerts so you can stay aware of recently reported groups.
The FTC reports that a flood insurance scam is already proliferating in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Homeowners and renters get robocalls telling them their flood premiums are past due and that they need to submit a payment in order to get relief from their insurer.
You can sign up to get scam alerts sent directly to your email.
4. Beware of fake social media fundraising
While social media can be a helpful source of information about ways to give, and seeing friends talking about donating online can make it seem like an enticing option, it’s also unregulated and can be exploited by scam artists and phony nonprofits.
In times of heightened need, scammers using fake Facebook accounts and Twitter bots to post spam or malware links can be some of the biggest offenders.
Phishing is also a common concern, according to the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Fraudulent organizations may send out emails or texts asking for direct donations or personal information, which are often attempts to steal a person’s identity. You should avoid giving out personal information or clicking on links from unknown sources.
5. Look out for red flags, like requests for payment via wire transfers
It’s also smart to be conscious of how a charity wants you to donate. In the FTC’s guide for avoiding fundraising scams, the organization warns that groups asking for payment in cash or through a wire transfer are more likely to be fake. Additionally, charities that offer to send an overnight courier to collect money, or use other tactics to pressure you to act quickly, are usually worth avoiding.
To combat this, Rusnock says it’s best to give directly to the charity through their own website, as opposed to using outside channels, such as social media or emails, that may or may not be associated with the organization.
Crowdfunding could be deceitful, too. According to the Better Business Bureau, campaigns on sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo can be unreliable, as it’s hard to determine whether or not a source is trustworthy or not. Still, there are some reliable ways to use these services, and GoFundMe has even set up an official page specifically for Hurricane Harvey relief and for Hurricane Irma relief. GoFundMe also offers to refund customers if they find out their donations weren’t used as promised.
Once you choose a legitimate charity, Rusnock suggests sticking with the organization. While many people tend to only donate immediately after a disaster strikes, she recommends signing up for recurring payments, or checking back in with the organization months after your first donation to learn about their current needs.
“A lot of people want to go out and donate after this happens, but we encourage donors — if they’re able to — to continue to support that organization even once the crisis is no longer in the news,” Rusnock says. “Oftentimes the charity is still responding long after attention has shifted away.”
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