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Charity scammers use wildfires in the U.S. West to steal from unsuspecting victims

Before you donate to any organization, do a little research to make sure it’s a safe move

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Photo (c) kroach - Getty Images
Scammers have proven once again that they’ll stop at nothing to defraud someone. 

With more than 35,000 wildfires ripping through the U.S. West, burning nearly 3 million acres and putting people at great health risks, the fraudster community has decided to see what they can make out of that calamity. According to Scamicide, scammers are posing as charities that help wildfire victims, but they’re only hoping to help themselves and no one else.

Think before you offer to donate

One of the leading reasons scammers love taking the charity route is because these organizations are not subject to the National Do Not Call Registry. That means legitimate charities can still contact you by phone even if you’re signed up.

The problem, says Scamicide’s Steve Weisman, is that you can never be sure who is really calling you, so you may be contacted either by a fake charity or a scammer posing as a legitimate charity. 

“Using a technique called spoofing, the scammers can manipulate your Caller ID to make it appear that the call is coming from a legitimate charity when it is not,” Weisman explains. “Similarly, when you are solicited for a charitable contribution by email or text message you cannot be sure as to whether the person contacting you is legitimate or not.”

There are other hallmarks of scam charities. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) notes that with cryptocurrency being a hot commodity, some scammers are asking donors to use bitcoins or other digital assets to make their donations. If that happens to you, stop right there because it’s a big red flag that someone is out to fleece you.

Do your homework and ask the right questions

ConsumerAffairs reached out to Patricia McIlreavy, the President of The Center for Disaster Philanthropy, for more advice about how people can avoid charity scammers. At the top of her list of suggestions is doing your research. 

McIlreavy recommends that consumers ask the organization they’re donating to if it’s a registered non-profit and whether it has a proven history of working with communities in disasters. 

“Additionally, there are tools, such as Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, BBB Giving, Guidestar, which do the vetting research for you. Nonprofits detail their ratings with these organizations on their websites,” she said.

Another way to find out if the charity or fundraiser is registered in your state is by contacting the National Association of State Charity Officials

“It is commendable to want to help, and always a good idea to take an extra moment to ensure your hard-earned dollars get to the people in need,” McIlreavy said.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests that you also consider these tips if you want to donate to a charity:

  • Designate the disaster to make sure your funds are going to disaster relief, rather than a general fund. Note: The CDP has two active wildfire-related funds that you can check out if you want to donate to relief efforts.

  • Don’t assume that charity messages posted on social media are legit. Research the organization yourself. Search the name of the organization with terms like “complaint,” “review,” “rating,” or “scam” to see if there are any potential issues.

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