Old Scams Become New to Target Charities

The depths to which criminals are willing to sink in order to steal money and information are never ending. Whether it’s extorting money from senior citizens with threats of turning off their utilities or pocketing donations from the public during a time of crisis, there’s apparently no such thing as off-limits.

Unfortunately, the next wave of victims seems to be the charities themselves, organizations that work for the greater good and strive to help others in need. Using a combination of known scam tactics, criminals are stealing the already limited and much-needed funds from charitable groups.

The first part of the scam involves the famous Nigerian prince email.

Those well-known scam messages targeted individuals with a phishing attempt, casting out thousands of lines at once and hoping some recipient was gullible enough to take the bait. A common form of that scam involved the “I’ve got too much money” story, in which the sender claimed to have millions of dollars that he needed to share for some strange reason.

The charitable organization receives a message such as that one, claiming that the sender’s mother died and left him millions of dollars on the condition that he share most of it with various charities. This letter is included with a check made out to the organization for a large but still believable amount.

Once the check is received, the second scam kicks in.

This one has affected individual consumers and places of business alike and is often known as an “overpayment” scam. An individual might learn he was sent the wrong amount of money owed to him in a refund, or a business might be told that an invoice was overpaid. The person who made the payment reaches out and requests that the difference is refunded in the interest of kindness and honesty.

Where the charities are concerned, the original sender contacts them and explains that the amount of the check was too high, that some of the money the charity accidentally received had already been promised to another organization in need. Since the stated amount is relatively small—maybe a couple thousand dollars—and since the charity certainly doesn’t want any bad press for not being helpful, they make the effort to return the overpaid amount.

But since the original story and the original donation check were completely bogus, the overpayment amount is actually funds that will come out of the charity’s bank account. Not only does this cost them some of their hard-earned funds, it can also lead to bookkeeping and accountability nightmares, especially if the organization is a certified non-profit or answers to a board of directors. The bad publicity surrounding mismanagement of money and the allegations of wrongdoing can cost them even more in the long run.

It’s sad that even charities have to be wary of large, unsolicited donations.

But as individual victims of these types have scams have learned the hard way, there’s no such thing as free money, at least not large, unexpected amounts of it.Charities and non-profits would do well to establish policies concerning donations of any kind in order to prevent this type of damage, such as holding onto donation checks for a legally allowable amount of time to prevent this scam. If a charity does receive this type of request for a refund, the agency can simply respond that they’re more than happy to help as soon as the board has met and agreed to release the funds. Any plausible delay can help the organization avoid becoming another victim of fraud while still agreeing to be helpful. Once the check has cleared—or bounced, as the case may be—then appropriate action can be taken.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

Read next: It Only Takes Minutes for a Thief to Use Your Data

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