We all watched in horror last week as the beautiful spire of Notre Dame Cathedral was engulfed in flames. I visited Notre Dame for the first time, right before I started my first year of law school, and it was awe inspiring. The fire and tragedy of the loss hit us all, and many of us want to be part of the restoration effort to rebuild this magnificent treasure.

Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, others with bad intentions know that we want to help in a time of need, and they are pouncing on our good intentions and the tragedy to steal from us.

There are several ways that scammers can use needy causes to steal from generous people willing to donate to a cause.

The first is through telephone solicitation. Thieves call posing as volunteers for a recent cause, like rebuilding Notre Dame and ask for donations over the telephone. This is not a recommended way to make a donation. You really don’t know who is on the other end of the line, and giving them a credit card number over the telephone is risky.

The second way is through crowdfunding. Scammers can set up fraudulent crowdfunding sites that say money will be donated to the cause, when in fact, the money is going in their pockets. Before choosing an organization to donate to, research the organization to confirm it is legitimate and reputable, go to the official website and don’t click on any email links, or donate the old fashioned way and send a check to the charity’s physical headquarters.

If responding to the fire of Notre Dame, or another cause that you care about, be aware that there are scammers in the world that want to take advantage of our good intentions. Avoid charitable giving scams so your favorite charity actually receives your donation.

As Hurricane Florence bears down on the Carolinas in the next few days, beware of scammers trying to take advantage of the good hearts of those of us who want to help the victims.

We have seen it before, and no doubt it will happen again in the next few weeks as the devastation of the hurricane becomes known. Fraudsters use natural disasters to prey on the good intentions of individuals who want to contribute to those left behind by disasters, including hurricanes. As Hurricane Florence is reported to be one of the worst hurricanes to land in the Carolinas in decades, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued guidance on wise giving after a hurricane that outlines the risks of hurricane relief charity fraud.

According to the guidance, “the best way to avoid this and other kinds of charity fraud is to go online and do your research to make sure your money goes to a reputable organization.”

To verify a charity for hurricane relief, there are several organizations that have vetted organizations that you can check before you send your check or donate online:

  • Give.org
  • Charitynavigator.org
  • Charitywatch.org
  • Guidestar.org

Many of the scammers send out authentic looking materials that impersonate real charities, but may have a missing letter in the name or closely resemble the reputable organization. If you want to donate to a well-known, reputable charitable organization, go directly to its website instead of clicking on a link in the materials sent via email, or send a check directly to its headquarters or local office.

If you are donating to a charity that is not well known, search the charity online and see if people have said it is a scam or have negative reviews.

Many scammers will call you to try to get you to donate over the telephone, or thank you for a previous donation and ask you to donate again. Be very skeptical of these callers and report any scams to the FTC.

The victims of Hurricane Florence will need our support, but don’t get scammed because of your generosity.

December is traditionally a busy month for charitable giving, as many donors are inspired by the holiday season to give generously to those in need, while others look to make year-end gifts that will qualify for a tax deduction in the current tax year.

Unfortunately, because of the increase in charitable giving, there is often an increase in charity scams during the holiday season. Donors should be wary of communications from unfamiliar organizations, including emails, texts, and phone calls, and should not provide personal or financial information without verifying the legitimacy of the request. Scammers often use popular charitable causes to solicit contributions, for example, by claiming that contributions will be used to help veterans, children, or cancer patients. The New York Attorney General recently announced the forced dissolution of one such organization, VietNow National Headquarters, which falsely claimed that contributions would be used to provide services and medical treatment to veterans. Continue Reading Protect Yourself From Year-End Charitable Giving Scams

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.

On June 16, 2016, the IRS announced that it will be making Form 990s available in machine-readable format through Amazon Web Services. While this information has always been available to the public, it was previously only accessible in PDF format, making searching or viewing data in bulk nearly impossible. The IRS announcement is in response to a January 2015 ruling by the Northern District of California that the IRS was required, under the Freedom of Information Act, to make Form 990 data available in a machine-readable format. The lawsuit was brought by government transparency group PublicResource.org. (See  Public.Resource.Org v. IRS, case number 3:13-cv-02789, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division).

The vast majority of tax-exempt organizations are required to file a Form 990, which is the IRS’s primary tool for gathering information about these organizations. The documents made available will include all Forms 990, 990-EZ (filed by smaller organizations), and 990-PF (filed by private foundations) electronically filed with the IRS from 2011 to the present, as well as related schedules. (Approximately two-thirds of all Form 990s are electronically filed.) Certain donor information, as well as personally identifiable tax identification numbers, will not be released, in order to prevent misuse of the data.

Form 990s include detailed information regarding an organization’s finances, board members, executive compensation, fundraising activities, grant-making, and other programs and operations. Making this information available in a searchable and machine-readable format will give the media, charity watchdog groups, researchers and the public easier access to the data, allowing them to identify and track trends across the nonprofit sector, as well as catch inconsistencies in reporting. Similarly, state regulators will be more easily able to identify markers on the Form 990 that may signal potential embezzlement, unreported self-dealing, or other wrongdoing, or that an organization is in financial trouble. This increased transparency may lead to greater scrutiny of the returns filed by tax-exempt organizations and of the nonprofit sector as a whole.

A surprising number of seniors are embracing digital technology, including computers, tablets and smartphones. Many use social media and email to stay in touch with friends, children and grandchildren. All of which is good. What is bad is the fact that seniors are being heavily targeted by scammers and fraudsters and are at risk of becoming victims of scams.

These scams include using all sources of communication, including the telephone, and through phishing and texting.

How can we help the seniors in our lives from becoming a victim? Educate them just like you educate yourself and your children about safe online behavior, using appropriate tools, such as firewalls and virus protection, and being suspicious of emails and texts from people they don’t know.

Many seniors have been scammed through telephone calls. Suggest to them that they should register their number with the state and federal “Do not Call” list. It is easy to do. Make sure they never give their personal information, and most importantly, their Social Security number or financial information, to anyone over the phone or through an email or text. Tell them not to agree to solicitations for charity or anything else over the telephone or through email or text.

Educate them about phishing and how it works. Encourage them not to fall for phishing emails and texts that ask them to click on a link, and that they should not provide their user name or password to anyone. Encourage them to delete all emails and texts that are from unfamiliar sources.

Grandchildren—help your grandparents with setting up passwords and implementing basic security measures on their phones, tablets and computers. Help them understand what their privacy settings are and how to implement privacy settings that they are comfortable with on their phones and social media accounts. For that matter, help your parents too!

We can all become the victim of a scam. But in general, seniors have less experience with digital media as the younger generations, as they did not grow up with it. Empower the seniors in your life with knowledge and the tools to embrace digital technology in a safe way and enjoy the time you spend with them bringing them into your digital world.

We reported last month ago about the release of Mattel’s new Hello Barbie (and the “Hell No Barbie Campaign”), with the capability to ‘carry a conversation’ with a child using speech recognition software and storage of conversations in the cloud. This week, in Los Angeles Superior Court, two moms filed a class action on behalf of their minor children against Mattel, ToyTalk and the kidSAFE Seal Program for talking Hello Barbie’s invasion of children’s privacy. Plaintiffs, Ashley Archer-Hayes (Archer-Hayes) and Charity Johnson (Johnson) allege that Mattel has caused emotional distress and loss of privacy, and that Mattel has misled consumers by stating that the doll (and its technology) complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Mattel does state on its website that Hello Barbie complies with COPPA requirements; however, Archer-Hayes and Johnson disagree. While COPPA restricts collection of personal information from children under the age of 13 without prior, verifiable parental consent, Hello Barbie can record children’s’ voices without any such checks or balances, and that Mattel and ToyTalk should have known, say the plaintiffs, that children would play with the doll with other children, who would also be recorded, without any parental consent or the parents’ ability to make choices about what happens to that data that is collected from their children. Plaintiff moms say that the companies should have come up with a process that would recognize when someone other than the Hello Barbie’s owner was being recorded and delete those recordings.

Plaintiffs’ attorney says, “This lawsuit should not be mistaken for a frivolous complaint over a toy. Providing hackers , who know no bounds in their invasive activities, with potential interactive access to any child or adult is in proximity of a doll, is a very serious matter, and dictates the very highest safeguards and warnings available.” We will watch and see where this one goes as the case (and the holiday sales season) progresses.