Charity Scams Take our Holiday Cheer – Here Are a Few Warning Signs

At the holidays, people tend to be more aware of the needs of others. Whether it’s because of the nostalgia associated with spending time with friends and family or the effort that goes into reaching out to others through cards and gifts, there’s always an undercurrent of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” at this time of year.

Unfortunately, criminals are all too aware of our benevolent sentiments, and they know how to tug at your heartstrings when you’re in this festive, giving mood.

Charity scams are a serious problem all year long, but opportunistic thieves tend to ramp up their efforts around the holidays in order to take advantage of consumers’ emotions. These scams can involve requests for funds to go to homeless shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries, gifts for underprivileged children, and more. The real problem—apart from the obvious, in which consumers are stolen from—is that the fear of fraud actually harms legitimate charities when copycats divert donors’ money from their programs.

Fortunately, there are some tell-tale signs that a charity is a scam, and if you can spot these features, you can still give confidently while knowing that your money will reach its intended purpose. 

  • Beware of charities with similar-sounding names or concepts. Most of us have heard of the well-known charity Toys for Tots, and we’ve probably all seen Salvation Army bell ringers outside of stores and malls. But just because people accept toy donations or stand outside asking for change does not make them affiliated with a proven 501(c)3 non-profit organization. In order to ensure that your contribution makes it to its intended charitable destination, consider limiting your giving to entities that can (and do) provide their financial documents to the Better Business Bureau, the local Chamber of Commerce, the IRS, and the public through their own company websites.

  • Make sure you’re not taken in by door-to-door requests for donations, unsolicited phone calls, or emails that get sent out and shared. If the person making the request cannot provide documentation of the charity’s non-profit status and cannot provide identification that explains their role within the charity, you probably should not make the donation.

  • Small donation requests. Another common charity scam is to request such small amounts of money—“it takes only three dollars to feed a homeless person Christmas dinner!”—that you get swindled into believing it’s genuine. And while you’re only out a few bucks if you fall for this scam, the other side consideration is that the success the scammer had in taking your money encourages him to continue.

So, how can you verify a charity is real? Check with the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance for charity reports. Charities go through a lengthy review process of 20 standards. GuideStar is another good resource for reviewing a charity’s legitimacy, impact, and transparency.  

One of the best ways you can help the greater good while still knowing that your donations have gone to the right place is to not limit your giving to the holidays. Any legitimate charity will tell you the same thing: “There are 364 other days of the year, and our needs are just as great all year long.” If you’re already in the habit of charitable giving throughout the year, you won’t feel the pressure to make an unexpected donation that might turn out to be a scam. If you like to make a larger one-time, year-end donation each December, make sure you’ve done your homework and chosen an agency that you value and can trust.


If you believe your personal data has been compromised, connect with the ITRC through our toll-free call center at (888) 400-5530. Find help on-the-go with the new IDTheftHelp app for iOS and Android.

Read next: Watch Out for What Comes in the Mailbox

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