Donating to Hurricane Harvey Victims? 7 Tips for Avoiding Fake Charity Scams

Texas Gulf Coast braces for Hurricane Harvey

Experts estimate Hurricane Harvey could be the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

We’re only just beginning to get a sense of all the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. Although it will be awhile until there’s a solid estimate of the total cost of cleaning up and rebuilding after the storm, experts are already predicting it will be the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. The cost of repairing and rebuilding after the storm could eventually reach $190 billion.

Many generous Americans are eager to do what they can to make a dent in that massive bill. But before you open your wallet to help hurricane victims, make sure the charity you’re donating to is legit. Sadly, scam artists often see a potential profit in tragedy, siphoning off donations for their own benefit. Other charities might have good intentions but aren’t able to provide the relief they promise.

Here are seven ways to make sure your Hurricane Harvey relief donation goes to a legitimate charity, not a scammer.

1. Validate before you donate

Before you click the “donate” button, do a little research on the charity you plan to give to. A group’s website should provide information on what it does and how it uses its money. Give.org and Charity Navigator can also help you decide whether a charity is a registered nonprofit and spends its money wisely. The IRS has a list of legitimate tax-exempt organizations. If you can’t find much info on a charity, proceed with caution.

“Be wary of charities that spring up too suddenly in response to current events and natural disasters. Even if they are legitimate, they probably don’t have the infrastructure to get the donations to the affected area or people,” noted the Federal Trade Commission.

Next: The perils of crowdfunding

2. Be cautious with crowdfunding

Hurricane Harvey Slams Into Texas Gulf Coast

Check out the page for verified campaigns. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Crowdfunding has made it easy to donate directly to individuals in need rather than a faceless charity. Plenty of campaigns have sprung up in the wake of Harvey’s devastation. Unfortunately, not every crowdfunding request is real, and it can be difficult to verify the truth of someone’s story if you don’t already have a connection to the person.

“If you decide to contribute via crowdfunding, it is probably best to give to people who you personally know that have posted requests for assistance,” according to the Better Business Bureau. GoFundMe also suggests you “only donate to people you personally know and trust.” The site has a page dedicated to verified Harvey campaigns and is working to combat any instances of fraud.

Next: Lookalike charities can be hard to spot.

3. Watch out for lookalikes

red cross volunteer comforts fire victim

Beware of scammers and fake sites. | Getty Images

Scammers might prey on your eagerness to donate by setting up fraudulent lookalike charities. Following Hurricane Katrina, at least 15 fake Red Cross websites sprang up. So did a site that claimed to be collecting money for the Salvation Army. Watch out for giveaways of a scam, such as misspellings or a URL that ends in .com rather than .org. Navigate to a site directly, rather than following a link on social media or from an unsolicited email.

In some cases, these phishing scams might not even be after your money directly. Instead, the goal is to steal your personal information or infect your computer with a nasty virus, noted the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team. Links and attachments in scam emails could install malware on your computer, so you could end up paying a price even if you don’t actually make a donation.

Next: Beware of sketchy social media posts.

4. Be skeptical on social media

positive messages

Double check all social media pleas. | Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Most charities use social media to let people know about their cause and urge people to donate. But just because you see a plea for help on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean it’s legit, the Federal Trade Commission warned. Do your own search for the organization online to verify it’s real. Double check phone numbers if you plan to give via text.

“Social media makes it easy to get swept up in a cause, whether it’s raising money for disaster victims or funding life-saving surgery for someone,” Steve Lee, the director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, said earlier in 2017. “Before consumers open their wallets, they should do some research to make sure their money is going to a legitimate cause, not into the pocket of a criminal.”

Next: High-pressure tactics are a red flag.

5. Don’t give in to high-pressure pleas for cash

military helping people

Most organizations won’t ask for cash. | Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Charities that ask you to give cash or wire money rather than donate via a check, credit card, or PayPal could be running a scam, according to the FTC. Details about the organization might be sketchy, and there might be a lot of pressure to donate right away. The plea for help might come from an unsolicited call or email.

In this kind of scam, the con artist tries to take advantage of your desire to help someone out but doesn’t want to give you enough time to research the so-called charity and discover it’s fake. Any legitimate nonprofit won’t turn up the heat when you say you need more time to research an organization.

Next: Skip the middleman.

6. Avoid the middleman

church with beds for refugees

Always give directly to the organization you wish to support. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Would-be donors should be wary of organizations that claim to be gathering money on behalf of another group, noted the Better Business Bureau. At best, your money has to go through a middleman before it gets to the final recipient, which is inefficient. In the worst-case scenario, the person who claims to be gathering money to give to the Red Cross could be a total fraudster. The Department of Justice recommends that you donate directly to organizations you want to support to make sure your money is used for its intended purpose.

Next: Who really benefits from your donation?

7. Find out how your money will be used

Hurricane Harvey dog rescue

Find out what they’re doing with your money. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

You might assume that the bulk of the money you donate goes to Hurricane Harvey relief, but that’s not necessarily the case. A Red Cross executive, for example, told NPR she wasn’t sure precisely what percentage of donated dollars would go to helping storm victims versus being spent on internal expenses. (The Red Cross has been criticized in the past for the way it has managed disaster relief and donations.)

To ensure their money ends up helping actual hurricane victims, some people prefer to donate to local organizations that already have an established presence in the community. Charity Navigator has a list of local Houston-area charities, including food banks and animal shelters, as well as national organizations that are providing support. When donating, you can also specify that your gift should go specifically to storm victims, though “it is not certain that all these organizations will spend 100% of donations received on Hurricane Harvey relief,” per Charity Navigator.

Next: More tips for donating

Make the most of your gift

flooded house

There will be lots of work to do for years to come. | Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Before you make a Hurricane Harvey relief donation, here are a couple of other things to keep in mind.

Don’t assume in-kind donations are best. In the wake of a disaster, gathering up canned goods, diapers, and clothing for people in need might seem like the best, most meaningful way to help. But storing, sorting, and distributing those gifts can be a challenge in a flood-ravaged area, especially if the items people give don’t match what people really need. Many organizations prefer to receive money, which gives them more flexibility to respond to on-the-ground needs, NPR reported.

Don’t forget about the victims. Donations skyrocket in the wake of a disaster, but the need for support doesn’t end when the TV cameras go away. Rebuilding hurricane-affected areas will take a long time and a lot of money. Consider saving some of your donation dollars for later, giving them to organizations rebuilding damaged homes or helping affected people find jobs, experts told NPR. Victims are also likely to need legal help dealing with insurance, FEMA programs, and banks and landlords.

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