By Jocelyn Baird, NextAdvisor.com
In the wake of disasters like the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal in April, people generally want to do what they can to help. When you're an ocean away from the people in trouble, your best option is usually to make a donation to a charity helping with the relief effort. Unfortunately, like with most good-natured human endeavors, there are going to be people who try to take advantage of others' kindness for their own gain. Charity scams are a sad reality, which is why it's important to be vigilant when looking for a charity to donate to and not let your emotions get in the way of common sense. Not only could you lose money, but you could be at risk of identity theft.
How can you avoid charity scams?
Although you might feel bad about getting scammed when donating to a fake charity, the fact of the matter is, scammers are crafty and counting on you to overlook any suspicious aspects in your hurry to help out. When the news is full of photos and stories about injured or displaced victims in need of assistance, it's easy to jump at the chance to give what you can to ease their pain. There are three main types of charity scams that commonly crop up after a disaster. Here's what they are and how you can avoid them.
Perhaps the most annoying of all the methods charity scammers use, these scams interrupt your day with a phone call. They might claim to be representing a charity collection donations for disaster victims, or in more nefarious cases, they may claim to actually be representatives of disaster victims themselves. Either way, it's never a good idea to give your information to someone over the phone because you can never be 100 percent certain they are who they say they are. Handing your bank account or credit card information to a stranger over the phone should always be a no-go in your mind. If you want to make a donation to a charity over the phone, you should call them yourself after looking the number up on the charity's website and doing some research to ensure your donation will be used correctly.
One of the best responses -- besides hanging up -- you can give to someone who solicits you for donations over the phone is to ask as many questions as possible. Scammers often grow uncomfortable with being questioned, and this can be a good way to discern whether they are for real or not. It is unlikely most legitimate charities will cold-call people to collect donations, and regarding callers with suspicion is the best way to keep yourself safe from charity scammers. Some aggressive scammers will try to pressure you to make an on-the-spot decision to donate -- don't fall for these tactics. Ask for a web address or organization name to do more research and don't be afraid to simply hang up the phone.
Text message/email scams
These days, most people have a cell phone and an email account, and scammers are eager to invade both. Text message donations have become a popular way for charities to encourage people to donate to victims in need without having to do much, but unfortunately, scammers have taken advantage of this legitimate donation method to trick people. As with telemarketing scams, it's best to regard any text message you receive soliciting donations with extreme prejudice. If you'd like to make this type of donation, do some research and locate a well-known charity that is accepting text message donations to send money to. The website Charity Navigator is a great resource for finding legitimate organizations to use for donating.
Likewise, unsolicited emails from people or companies you don't recognize are highly likely to be charity scams. Even if it looks like it's coming from a well-known organization, you should be wary of clicking any links. Instead, visit the charity's website separately in your web browser and double-check to make sure you've spelled the name correctly in the URL. Some scammers will set up fake websites using common misspellings to try and trick people into thinking they are on the real organization website. Clicking on links within your email or text messages can also put you at risk for downloading malware onto your computer or mobile device, which could turn you into a victim of identity theft.
Social media scams
Facebook and Twitter are full of posts designed to get you to click on links. Usually it's harmless or silly stuff, but scammers are aware of how easy it is to get people to act without thinking. Charity scams are all-too-frequent on social media sites, especially since it's so easy to share photos that tug on people's heart strings. You might see posts pop up on your newsfeed from friends or pages you follow asking for you to click a link to donate, but it's best to do some research before clicking. Some of these posts are outright scams -- the scammer pockets the money rather than donating it or collects your personal information for other purposes. Other times, the poster may mean well, but lacks the resources to follow through and ensure the money gets donated to the correct place. Another thing to be aware of, according to the Better Business Bureau's warning on Nepal charity scams, is social media accounts designed to collect followers so the person can sell the page or account to someone else down the road. They may be designed as charities aiming to help out, but really exist only to collect followers without actually doing anything substantial to aid disaster victims.
How do I make sure I'm donating to the right place?
The most important step is to do your research. Utilize websites like the BBB and Charity Navigator which exist to help inform consumers about businesses and nonprofit organizations. Not only do you want to make sure that the charity you're donating to actually sends funds to the disaster victims you want to help, but it's also wise to find out what percentage of donations made actually go to relief -- some charities, while legitimate, only donate very little of their profits to people and causes in need. Finally, make sure if you are donating to a charity that helps multiple causes that you specify which cause you'd like your donation money to be used for.
Keeping yourself safe from falling victim to charity scams requires common sense and the ability to think before you react. That can be difficult when it comes to tragic events that evoke empathy, but the most important thing about donating to charity is helping people out -- and if your money is going into a scammer's pockets, it isn't helping anyone. Learn more about how to stay safe from scammers and protect your identity by following our identity theft protection blog.
This blog post originally appeared on NextAdvisor.com.