What To Do If You've Donated To A Fraudulent Charity

It happened after September 11, Katrina, Sandy, the Boston Marathon, and other disasters, man-made and natural, around the world. After serious tragedies, when a compassionate public is at its most vulnerable, unscrupulous individuals find taking advantage the world's generosity comes easy. Within hours - even minutes - of the news, new operations spring up, offering to collect donations in support of victims.

Thanks to today's electronic environment where sharing news is effective and fast, with only one mouse-click, well-meaning people spread information at a faster rate than ever. Who has time to fact-check when lives are on the line? That's how one message on Twitter, purporting that the owner would donate $1 to Boston's victims every time the message was shared, spread so quickly.

Just pausing for a few seconds to look at the basic facts about the owner of that Twitter account should have been enough to signal the lack of validity to the statement, but the rewards of sharing such a message outweighed the risk. After all, the Twitter message wasn't asking anyone to send any money.

In the scam spectrum, this was pretty tame. Once money is involved, the stakes are higher. Use common sense before giving any relief organization your money:
  • An official-sounding name doesn't make an organization official. Make sure the organization shares important information online, like its founders and board members.
  • Organizations must file with their state before soliciting donations. It's worth a call to the appropriate Department of State before sending money.
  • Sites like CharityNavigator can tell you more about a non-profit organization, but even legitimate pop-up charities might not be listed in the immediate aftermath.
  • The IRS website allows visitors to search for an organization's 501(c)3 (non-profit) status. But the IRS can take months to grant the status, so again, if timely giving is important, you might not yet know whether your contributions are tax-deductible.
  • Don't give anyone cash, and don't give money to an organization that calls you out of the blue. The Office of the New Jersey Attorney General puts it bestDon't give simply because of a pathetic “sob story.”

Not all charities are tax-deductible. If you are giving to a fund that helps a specific person or family, your money may be put to good use, but the organization will not be listed with the IRS as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Organizations can get into trouble if they claim donations will be tax deductible and are later unable to receive the blessing from the IRS, and when you pay your taxes, you could be hit with penalties and interest if you claim a donation is tax-deductible when it's not.