When disaster strikes, such as the earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy, or an incident closer to home, many have an instinct to open up their wallet to give.
But be warned: Many swindlers see disasters as an opportunity to take.
Scam artists posing as charitable organizations use natural disaster appeals to steal identities and bilk kind-hearted consumers, according to the Department of Homeland Security's Computer Emergency Readiness Team. One of the more common ways consumers get ripped off? By phishing: Soliciting personal information (like your social security number) via a legit-looking email or web site. Thieves take advantage of people's charitable side, then commit identity fraud with the the information provided by unsuspecting good Samaritans.
How to Protect Yourself
Internet scam artists are looking for any opportunity to take your identity and your money. Here are some important dos and don’ts.
DO check out the charity. Online predators rely on name recognition to hook you into giving. A charity named for a specific disaster, or one that sounds similar to an established charity, should raise red flags. Also, be wary of any charity that comes into being immediately after a disaster.
Request information in writing. At the same time, search for the soliciting charity on the Better Business Bureau’s web site to find out if they’re legit. The American Institute of Philanthropy is another good resource in terms of checking to see if a charity is on the level. The Institute also has a listing of international relief and development organizations.
DON'T get emotional. According to Federal Trade Commission spokesman Frank Dorman, you should always be wary of anyone who appeals to your emotions, especially when it concerns a recent disaster. You may want to help earthquake victims in Italy, but there’s a chance that someone who tries to guilt you into making a donation may have an ulterior motive.
DON'T get personal. Never give out bank or credit card account information, or any other personal information over the phone. Be wary of web sites that ask for personal information as well.
DON'T pay with your card. Scam artists want you to make your donation immediately. However, when you use your credit card, you may be giving a con man the chance to ruin your credit, steal your identity, or both.
According to the FTC, it’s always best to donate money by check. Not only will you have a record of the transaction, you’ll also have time to cancel it if you reconsider. Just remember to make the check payable to the relief organization, and not to the person making the request.
DO report fraud. Members of the public can report fraud involving disaster relief operations through the Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721, fax at 225-334-4707 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DO be proactive in your giving. Natural disaster recovery efforts accept both time and money. One of the best places to find out how to help after any natural disaster is Volunteer.gov.