Avoiding Scams while Responding to Those in Need

When disaster strikes, there’s often a heart-tugging sadness that comes from feeling powerless to do something useful. As distanced bystanders, we’re left reeling from the news footage of the horrific events, both man-made and natural, and thinking to ourselves, “If only there was something I could do to help.”

Fortunately, technology has empowered us to support people in their time of need. Charitable giving websites, crowdfunding campaigns, even the ability to text a donation for a specific cause and then pay it on the following month’s bill have enabled us to lend a hand when needed.

In the instance of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, nearly 3 million people were killed, injured, or left homeless. Relief efforts were mobilized within mere minutes. The Red Cross immediately set up a text-to-donate option, and more than $43 million came in via text.

Sadly, the same technology that lets kind-hearted people participate in helping out have also made it possible for scammers to bilk innocent, well-intentioned people out of their money. It can also be used to steal your personal identifiable information, something that’s far more valuable than a donation of a few dollars.

Only a matter of hours after the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, scammers were already soliciting donations for relief efforts, but pocketing the money. And it’s the same with nearly every high-profile incident that affects large numbers of victims.

So how are you supposed to help while still keeping criminals out of your wallet? By only working with trusted sources and legitimate agencies.

But authorities have already warned the public to be watchful of “disaster relief” scams that crop up online. There are genuine sources to send donations of money or supplies, and even applications to volunteer with the relief efforts in person. Considering how easy it is to set up a website and request donations, though, here’s a good rule of thumb. If you do not recognize the name of the charity that is soliciting funds, or if it’s a name that’s too “sudden” to be believed (something like LouisianaFloodHelp.com), be cautious. Trustworthy charities will have long-standing reputations of meeting the government’s guidelines for a charitable organization, so other new sites should be treated as suspect.

If you think you may be a victim of identity theft, contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530.

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