With wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and now a pandemic in the news, social media feeds and email inboxes are filling up with appeals to donate money. Crowd-funding sites such as GoFundMe are full of heart-rending tales of families needing assistance. Charities are soliciting on Facebook. And mobile giving makes it easy to send donations with a simple text message.
But the technological wizardry that enables instant connection and convenient donations can also make it difficult to discern which charities are legitimate. Unscrupulous individuals take advantage of the confusion caused by natural disasters to turn a personal profit. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, the FBI found that many of the more than 4,500 new Web sites that were launched to promote relief efforts were fraudulent. Just one example: an individual who promised to fly supplies to stricken areas collected $40,000 in two days via "katrinaair.com" but never followed through.
Here are tips to ensure your dollars support legitimate causes:
Use sites such as GuideStar, Charity Watch, and the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance to vet charitable organizations.
If you're introduced to a charity online, reach the organization by phone and speak to someone in person about how your contributions will be used. If there's no phone number, live chat link, or other means to verify the charity's activities in person, it could well be a scam.
Consult people you know in real life – not just online – and local media outlets in the affected areas to gauge which charities are doing the most good on the ground.
If you or your relations live in affected areas, beware of fraudulent contractors exploiting the situation for personal profit. In California, it is a felony for unlicensed contractors to work in a disaster area. Hire only licensed businesses with solid local reputations, obtain written estimates, and never pay up-front in cash.
Those living in affected areas should also be vigilant against identity thieves posing as relief workers. Ask to see identification from anyone claiming to be from FEMA, local or state agencies, or charities.
For more information, consult these resources:
Learn about charity scams at the FTC.gov Web site.
You can verify charitable organizations are registered in the state of California and report violations via the state's attorney general.
Consult the CDC for disaster planning tips for elder adults and caregivers and families.
CAL FIRE offers specific tips for wildfire preparedness.
FEMA offers these tips to avoid disaster-related scams.
The California Board of Real Estate issued a press release about reporting price gouging on home rents in the wake of the October 2017 wildfires.