Following the catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in the Gulf Coast, many local and national nonprofits quickly mobilized to respond to survivors’ immediate needs and begin planning for the long-term recovery of affected communities. There has been an amazing outpouring of support for the relief efforts from donors across the country, as volunteers are working on the ground to get help and supplies to those in need. Unfortunately, as often happens following a major disaster, fundraising scams seeking to capitalize on the relief efforts have become all too common.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) have all issued advisories warning of potential scams related to Hurricane Harvey. Potential donors should not be dissuaded from giving, but should be aware of the types of scams they may encounter and strategies for avoid falling victim.
Scammers posing as legitimate organizations may communicate through phone calls, text messages, emails, or social media, and may use the name of a well-known charity, or one that sounds very similar, to collect funds and personal information. Scammers may set up fake social media profiles, crowdfunding campaigns, or websites that closely resemble those of legitimate organizations, and may engage in email phishing attacks. US-CERT’s advisory warns against opening attachments or clicking links in any unsolicited emails referencing Hurricane Harvey, even if the email appears to come from a legitimate organization or known source. Potential donors should be wary of calls or text messages requesting funds for the relief effort, especially if the caller asks for a contribution to be made in cash or by wire, and should avoid giving out personal or credit card information by phone or text.
The safest strategy is to avoid responding to unsolicited requests for contributions by giving to known and trusted organizations or taking the time to research an organization before giving. The following resources can help potential donors learn more about an organization, including whether the organization is recognized as a tax-exempt charity by the IRS.
- The IRS Exempt Organizations Select Check database includes organizations that the IRS has recognized as tax-exempt charities, and indicates whether an organization is currently eligible to accept tax-deductible contributions.
- A number of states require most charities to register before soliciting contributions from their residents. Some states publish a searchable database of registered charities online (such as New York and Connecticut), so that members of the general public can confirm whether a particular organization is registered.
- Independent charity evaluators, including the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and GuideStar, allow potential donors with access to detailed information about an organization’s programs, finances, and governance, including how much of its annual budget is spent on disaster relief and related programs.