For those of us who've visited Florida's Gulf Coast, the images of how Hurricane Ian destroyed a huge swath of it are gutting. My heart is breaking for Sanibel Island. I cannot image how the people who live there are feeling or coping.
Landfall didn't stop this deadly monster. As Ian moved across the Sunshine State, it left in its wake similar, albeit less severe, damages. Now South Carolina residents are Hurricane Ian's latest targets.
The storm also has touched those like me who want to help with the disaster's immediate aftermath, as well as with the long-term rebuilding efforts. That's not surprising. Charitable donations skyrocket following natural disasters.
So do charity related scams.
Here are some tips to ensure that your gifts really do go to disaster victims, and not into the pockets of crooks. They are a compilation of donation advice from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Better Business Bureau (BBB), AARP, and state officials.
1. Don't immediately give to solicitations. By now, your email inbox probably is full of messages about how you can help. Some are showing up in your text messages. Ditto your voice mail if you still have one of those. You've probably even seen some television ads about relief efforts during commercial breaks of the news channels covering Hurricane Ian.
Yes, time is of the essence in getting help to those in need. But acting on the first donation options you see could send your money to crooks, rather than to those in need.
Some of these charities are new, legitimately created specifically for the latest disaster. These real charities' disaster-specific donation efforts generally are a part of the group's overall relief efforts, such as a special page on the group's main web page.
Crooks, however, create fake charity sites with names that are similar to familiar or nationally known organizations. Many are carefully crafted to include logos similar to the real charities, but the fake charities' disaster scams typically are free-standing operations without any link to the real group's sites.
At the other end of the scam spectrum, also beware of charities that you've never heard of before. Either way, if you suspect anything is not quite right about a charity solicitation, don't give. Take your time to find a real charity — more on this in tip #2 — that will put your contributions to good work.
2. Check out the charities. The IRS' online Exempt Organizations Select Check will let you know whether the group has met federal tax law requirements to be registered as a 501(c)(3) public charity. However, with the recent revelation that the IRS let some nonqualified groups onto its list, you might want to check further.
Private groups also vet charities. They include Charity Navigator; Candid, which is the combined effort of GuideStar and Foundation Center; the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance; and Charity Watch. All of these charity oversight groups actually are themselves nonprofits.
You also can contact the National Association of State Charity Officials to find out whether a charity is registered in your state. If not, consider donating through another charity.
Official Florida Disaster Help Portals
Florida Disaster Fund is the state's official private fund established to assist Florida communities as they respond to and recover during times of emergency or disaster. In partnership with the public sector, private sector and other non-governmental organizations, the Florida Disaster Fund supports response and recovery activities.
The Fund's website has more on its operations and how you can donate online. You also can contribute via mobile device by texting "disaster" to 20222.
If you want to volunteer, check out the myriad options and locations where you can help in person at the state's special volunteer page.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also has an online page with info on volunteering and donating after a disaster. It includes Voluntary Agency Liaisons (VAL) who work with Voluntary Agencies (VOLAG) to coordinate their assistance. The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) website has more on its operations.
3. Be cautious when it comes to crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is a popular way to raise money for good causes, especially when the effort includes a celebrity appeal. Even some government agencies use this option. These online efforts have become more popular, especially among younger donors, thanks to social media, which makes it easy to reach out and encourage giving.
"A lot of people will go on a crowdfunding website and see someone that's giving to charity, and they will think, 'Oh, this is an easy way for me to give my donation.' But you really need to do your research," said Kristen Johnson, director of communications at the Better Business Bureau of Connecticut, "because not all crowdfunding websites vet the people who are collecting donations."
But crowdfunding's popularity also makes it easy for crooks to steal your money, especially when it features a heart-rending story of loss from a disaster victim. Some common signs that a crowdfunding site is a scam include —
- Pressure to give right now. A legitimate charity will welcome your donation whenever you choose to make it.
- A thank-you for a donation you don't recall making. Making you think you've already given to the cause is a common trick unscrupulous fundraisers use to lower your resistance.
- A request for payment by cash, gift card, or wire transfer. Those are scammers' favored payment methods because the money is difficult to trace.
4. 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. The same caution applies regardless of how the donation request arrives.
Crooks create bogus websites that 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.
5. Don't give out personal financial information. Some donation sites also ask for your personal information, such as your Social Security number, your credit card and bank account numbers, as well as passwords to your financial accounts. There is no reason in the world that a real charity needs this information. The criminals are using the fake disaster donation lure as a way to steal your identity. Ignore the written or texted requests for such personal data. Hang up on crooked callers seeking the same.
6. 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.
7. 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 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.
Reporting disaster scams: Scam artists, identity thieves, and other criminals try to take advantage of those who want to help disaster survivors, as well as the victims themselves.
To stop them as quickly as possible, government officials ask anyone who encounters any type of storm-related schemes to report it. A few ways to do that are discussed below.
FEMA offers a variety of ways to report disaster fraud. There's a toll-free hotline at (866) 720-5721. You also can email the agency the information at [email protected], or fax it (not toll-free) to (202) 212-4926.
The FTC accepts reports of charity or weather-related scams online at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. You can find more on reporting fraud and see what's already been brought to officials' attention at the FTC's special fraud reporting page, which has a link for Spanish speakers.
The National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) keeps track of scams via reports to its toll-free hotline (866) 720-5721 and its online complaint page. U.S. Attorneys will use this information, in coordination with federal and local law enforcement partners, to investigate and prosecute hurricane relief schemes.
Where taxes are involved, let the IRS know. The agency has a special tax scam web page, which lists various criminal tax cons and how to report them.
You also might find these items of interest:
- Beware: Land sharks & recovery scams follow every disaster
- Disaster help now, donation tax deduction later
- Volunteer time is not deductible, but some expenses might be
- Crowdfunding tax consequences and reporting requirements
- More disasters mean more catastrophe-related scams, including charitable tax donation deduction ploys