This post was updated Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018.
Keep reading for the latest in the UPDATE paragraphs below.
Oh, Photoshop. What would the internet be without you? Sometimes, doctored images are welcome innocent examples of good humor. Other times they are cruel and divisive.
And the astounding photos tend to skyrocket during times of tragedy and disaster.
Mashable has the details on the original shark photo, which over the years has been seen in edited online images swimming through flooded streets from New Jersey to Puerto Rico.
It also reappeared in September 2018 after Hurricane Florence produced massive rains that flooded much of North Carolina.
Watch out for charity scams: Falling for a fake photo in your social media streams is one thing. A few moments of embarrassment and the next hot Instagram or Snapchap image or Tweet pushes the error off your screen.
But some other fakery that appears after every disaster is more long-lasting and potentially very costly.
I'm talking, sadly, about charity scams and the crooks who perpetrate them to take advantage of most people's inclination to want to help after a natural disaster.
So far, I've not heard of any charity scams related to 2018's horribly historic wildfires still raging (as of Aug. 10, 2018) across California. But you can be sure the crooks are out there looking for ways to not only prey on folks trying to help, but also victims of this and other natural disasters.
Scam history repeats itself, repeatedly: How can I make such a bold prediction? Because I've seen it happen again and again and again.
- Criminals using disasters to take honest folks' money happened in 2009 after the devastating Haitian earthquake.
- Criminals targeted charitable individuals after Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans in 2012, as well as in the wake of Super Storm Sandy's march through the New York/New Jersey/MidAtlantic region that same year.
- In 2015, crooks used South Carolina floods to scam charity donors.
- After the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in June 2016, the Internal Revenue Service had to issue a consumer alert about possible fake charity scams emerging in connection with that tragedy.
So I'm adding my preemptive warning now. Be extra careful about giving if you're approached by an unknown person or group ostensibly seeking help for disaster victims.
UPDATE, 9/19/2018: Yes, it's happening again. Another hurricane, this time Hurricane Florence that battered the Carolinas (especially the Tar Heel State), has brought out the best and worst in humans. The IRS on Wednesday, Sept. 18, issued an alert urging folks to beware of fake charity scams in the wake of this latest storm. If you want to help, your best bet is to check out the suggestions in this post.
UPDATE, 8/29/2017: The IRS on Tuesday, Aug. 29, also issued an alert urging everyone to beware of fake Hurricane Harvey charity scams.
8 ways to guard against charity scams: These 8 tips on how to avoid a charity scam can help you ensure you give to legitimate nonprofits providing real relief.
- Be wary of offers from all sources: Fake charity schemes, in which con artists impersonate charities to get money or private information from well-intentioned individuals, can show up as telephone, social media, email or in-person solicitations.
- Know your charities: While some legitimate disaster-specific charities may be created, be wary of charities with names that are similar to familiar or nationally known organizations. The real charities' disaster-specific donation efforts generally are a part of the group's overall relief efforts. Phony charities' disaster scams, however, are free-standing operations that use names or websites that sound or look like those of respected, real organizations but are not connected to them. At the other end of the scam spectrum, also beware of charities that you've never heard of before. Basically, if you suspect anything is not quite right, don't give. Take your time to find a real charity that will put your contributions to good work.
- Check out the charities: You can check out any charity by using the IRS' online Exempt Organizations Select Check. With a simple online search, you can verify whether an organization is a legitimate, IRS-qualified nonprofit. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also has a list of national voluntary organizations that are active in disasters.
- Be cautious when it comes to crowdfunding: Crowdfunding is popular way to raise money for good causes. Even some government agencies use this option. But it also makes it easy for crooks to steal your money, especially when it features a heart-rending story of loss from a disaster victim. Before you donate to a crowdfunded disaster site, check out these tips from YouCaring on how to tell if an online fundraiser is a scam.
- Don't give out personal financial information: Some crooks don't ask for money. They are playing a longer con, seeking to steal your identity by asking for your Social Security number, your credit card and bank account numbers, as well as passwords to your financial accounts. Don't share this with anyone seeking your help for disaster victims. Real nonprofits do not need all these personally identifying details when you donate.
- Don't donate cash: Not only is giving cash an easy way to lose your money, it won't do you any good if you plan to deduct your donation. You need substantiation for deduction purposes, and that's available through copies of checks or credit card receipts showing your charitable gift details or from an official receipt from the charity. If a charity isn't prepared or doesn't want to give you a receipt, or gives you one that doesn't have the charity's details on it, that's a warning that it's fake.
- Don't click on links or attachments: If you get an email with a link to a supposed website where you can make donations to disaster victims, don't go there. These bogus websites mimic the sites of or use names similar to legitimate charities. Even if you click there and decide not to donate, just clicking over there could give crooks access to your computer. Likewise, don't open an attachment that purportedly is a way to give to a charity. That's not how legitimate nonprofits operate. If you want to give online, go to the real charitable website yourself, never through a link in an unsolicited email.
- Don't become a double victim: Suffering losses from a disaster is bad enough. Don't compound your troubles by falling victim to a crook pretending to be someone who can help you make disaster-related claims. Some folks pretend during every disaster to be recovery experts who can walk you through the state and local steps of getting government help. You don't need them. That's what state and FEMA officials are for. Be similarly skeptical of folks who want to help you fill out tax claims for disaster relief. Such unsolicited offers are likely from crooks, who will take all that personal info you need to file for a disaster tax help and use it to steal not only that cash you need to rebuild, but also your identity. Instead, find a real tax pro who can help you.
Ways to give wisely after a disaster: The Federal Trade Commission comes at this same consumer concern from the other side, suggesting ways to donate wisely after a disaster.
The highlights are in the FTC's infographic below, but I recommend you also click on over (using the link above) to the agency's full blog post for more.
Some of the FTC advice duplicates that of the IRS. But the reinforcement is warranted for the good (and safety) of both givers and those who need the help.
Everyone be careful: Even, or especially, when folks are in need, everyone needs to beware and be wary.
I know that when so much of your world has literally crashed around you, it's tempting to take any help offered. It's equally appealing for those who want to help natural disaster victims to eagerly give to groups that swear they are providing recovery services.
But regardless of whether you’re a storm victim or a good Samaritan, take your time to get and give the legitimate help that's needed to make it through such terrible circumstances.
If you hear of or are approached by crooks pushing fake charity or disaster help scams, let me know. Let the IRS (which has a tax scam web page which lists criminal tax cons and how to report them) and Federal Trade Commission (via its online scam reporting tool) know, too. We all want to get the word out about such scams so that folks aren't additionally victimized by crooked landsharks.
As for legit ways to give to help those hard hit by Harvey, my earlier post has a variety of donation options.
You also might find these items of interest:
- Volunteer time is not deductible, but some expenses might be
- Uncommon charitable gifts still provide donors the typical tax deduction
- Charitable donation tax deduction rules apply on Giving Tuesday and year-round