July 5, 2010
As the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, consumers are urged to beware of fraudulent charitable solicitations relating to the clean-up effort and to assisting businesses and communities affected by the disaster.

In the aftermath of other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, scammers have used e-mails, websites, telephone calls, flyers, mailings and other methods to solicit contributions from the public -- supposedly to assist victims. This time around, scammers may claim to be raising money for the oil spill relief effort, including environmental causes, remediation services and victim assistance.

"Scammers follow the headlines," said New York State Consumer Protection Board (CPB) Chairman and Executive Director Mindy A. Bockstein. "That's why it's important to be cautious about responding to charitable solicitations in the aftermath of a disaster such as the oil spill. Consumers should ask questions and do their homework before opening up their wallets and giving to charities that claim to be helping with the oil spill relief efforts."

While consumers are urged to be careful about bogus charities that spring up while efforts to plug the leak continue, they will also need to remain vigilant about avoiding scams throughout the massive, long-term clean-up and recovery efforts.

Do your homework

Before making a donation, CPB recommends you consider the following:

• Contribute to known and verifiable charities. Research the organization's status, registration filings and complaints by contacting the CPB, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and/or the Better Business Bureau.

• Beware of callers who want your money fast or use high-pressured tactics. When solicited by phone, always ask the caller to send you written materials about the charity. No legitimate organization will insist that you donate immediately. Watch out for solicitors who employ dramatic, emotional or heart-tugging stories. Ask for written information about the charity and how your money will be spent or distributed.

• Avoid giving cash. Make checks out to the charity not to an individual. Give your contribution by check or credit card so that you have a record of the donation. If you choose to make a donation via a charity's website, check to ensure that the website is secure and that your computer is equipped with the latest anti-virus protection. Don't send contributions with a "runner," by wire or overnight parcel pick-up service.

• Guard against fake solicitations. Be wary of unsolicited mailings, phone calls and e-mails requesting donations. Unless you have signed up to receive e-mails from a charity of your choice, do not respond to e-mail solicitations. Don't click on any links contained in these emails, as you may be directed to a fake website made to look like a legitimate organization's official site. Other e-mails ask for money to be sent to offshore bank accounts.

• Don't disclose personal or financial information. Never give your Social Security number, credit card or debit card number or other personal identifying information in response to an unsolicited charitable request, especially over the phone.