The lowest of the low: charity scammers

Arguably, charity scams are one of the ugliest kinds of fraud. By taking advantage of the kindness of others, scammers are stealing money intended to help those most in need.

And the reality is, people are very giving.

According to the National Philanthropic Trust, individual Americans gave $292.09 billion last year—more than foundations, bequests, and corporations combined.

That staggering amount of money tempts the less-scrupulous to scam their way into benefiting from the generosity of others.

To make sure your hard-earned dollars have the most impact, make sure you’re giving wisely and avoiding fraudsters. Now is the perfect time to review what you should do before you ever hit that “donate” button. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has whole bunch of easy-to-implement tips:

1. Research. Of course, see what you can learn on the charity’s website, but also do a little digging elsewhere on the web. Beyond telling you whether the charity is actually a scam, you can learn things about how the organization is spending their money (is it all going to salaries, or is the money going to the cause?), and more. The FTC says you should use reputable third-party sites such as:

To find out if your donation will be tax deductible, visit the IRS’ Tax Exempt Organization Search. Also, your state may also have an agency that regulates charities. You can visit National Association of State Charity Officials to find the right group where you live.

2. Pay the right way. You should always make donations using a credit card or a check. If you’re asked to make a donation with a gift card, wire transfer, or cash—all of which are untraceable—that’s a big red flag that something is not on the up and up.

3. Read the fine print on giving portals. Now days, there are many online giving portals where you can make donations to a variety of charities in one place. These are super handy, but the FTC advises that you should find out:

  • Where your money goes. You should be able to tell who gets your donation and how your money gets to that charity.
  • The fee costs. Portals should disclose if they keep part of your donation as a fee before sending the balance to the charity. Based on this information, you may wish to make a direct donation instead.
  • Donating timing. How long does it take for the charity to get your donation?
  • Follow-through procedures. In case your donation doesn’t go through, the portal should say what happens to the funds.
  • What happens to your information. See if your information is shared with the charity—or anyone else—and whether you have the choice to opt in or out of sharing.

4. Keep records. Review your statements closely—not only to make sure you’re only charged the right amount, but also to make sure you were not signed up to make unplanned recurring donations.

5. Don’t forget scammers’ tricks. Here some things to watch out for:

  • High-pressure tactics (real charities won’t rush you)
  • Unsolicited emails or social media messages with links (those links may contain malware)
  • Unsolicited text messages (confirm the phone number with the charity’s website)
  • Sentimental claims without any real information about how the funds will be used
  • Thanks for a donation you never made (a technique used to trick people into thinking they just forgot to send money)
  • A charity name that sounds a lot like a real charity (this is where research is your friend!)
  • Promises that 100% of your donation will be used to help the person/cause in need (all charities have fundraising and administrative costs)
  • Caller ID—always remember that scammers can spoof Caller ID to make a call look legit
  • Guarantees of sweepstakes wins for donations (not only a scam, but illegal!)

6. Don’t give out your information. No matter how nice the person seems, do not give out your personal and financial information such as your Social Security number, date of birth, bank account, or credit card details to anyone soliciting a donation.

If you think you’ve been a victim of a charity scam, report it to the FTC and also your state charity regulator.

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