National Consumers League

Hurricane Harvey charity scams warning

92_donate.jpgWith heartbreaking images of the recent devastation in Houston, many consumers in the United States and around the world are reaching for their wallets to help. The inclination to send donations is generous and kind, but advocates know that con artists have long exploited natural disasters, and consumers must be careful in order to avoid sending money to scammers who pose as charities.

In the days following a natural disaster, our Fraud.org staff often hear from consumers about crooks’ attempts to take advantage of tragic events for their personal gain. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, we received reports of a variety of scams tailored by con artists to capitalize on the rescue efforts. Scams typically involve con artists sending out emails purporting to come from a known and respected charity such as the Red Cross or Oxfam International. Victims are then directed to a fake Web site made to look like a legitimate charity's site, where they are asked to share personal information or donate via wire transfer, PayPal, or a bank account. The scammer then makes off with the donation, and no real funds are sent to support actual disaster relief.

“The continued tragedy of fraud perpetrated in the wake of such disasters is that charity scams not only rob the donors,” said John Breyault, NCL vice president for public policy on telecommunications and fraud. “They also divert contributions from legitimate charities, who are in great need for money and goods to assist those who need it most."

Fraudulent charities use natural disasters like the one in Houston to trick people who want to aid the victims. If you’re not sure whether a charity is legitimate, follow this advice:

  • If you’re approached by an unfamiliar charity, check it out. Most states require charities to register with them and file annual reports showing how they use donations. Ask your state or local consumer protection agency how to get this information. The Better Business Bureau Wise (BBB) Giving Alliance also offers information about national charities. Call (703) 276-0100 or go to Give.org.

  • Ask for written information. Legitimate charities will be happy to provide details about what they do and will never insist that you act immediately.

  • Beware of sound-alikes. Some crooks try to fool people by using names that are very similar to those of legitimate, well-known charities.

  • Ask about the caller’s relation to the charity. The caller may be a professional fundraiser, not an employee or a volunteer. Ask what percentage of donations goes to the charity and how much the fundraiser gets.

  • Be wary of requests to support police or firefighters. Some fraudulent fundraisers claim that donations will benefit police or firefighters, when in fact little or no money goes to them. Contact your local police or fire department to find out if the claims are true and what percentage of donations, if any, they will receive.