For many people, the holiday season is a great time to give back. Unfortunately, that also means scammers are ready and waiting to take advantage of the holiday generosity. Metro spoke with Michael Osakwe from consumer info site NextAdvisor for tips on how to avoid holiday scams so your charity counts this season.
Metro: How common are scams around the holidays, and why?
Michael Osakwe: There is no hard data on the number of charity scams that occur each year, but many experts suggest that scammers do go into high gear come holiday season. There is data suggesting that the holidays tend to be the most popular time to give, so it’s possible that this also plays some role in the increased frequency of scams during the season. While there’s no absolute measure about how much scams go up during the holidays, at the very least we do know since consumers tend to be more charitable around this time, their likelihood of encountering a scam can go up.
What’s the first piece of advice for someone looking to find a charity to donate to?
In order to avoid trouble, individuals who want to donate this holiday season should stick to giving to charities they recognize or are otherwise familiar with. In the instance that someone develops an interest in a new cause or charity, they can use various registries like Give.org, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch or Guide Star to verify the legitimacy of the charity. The IRS also maintains a database of charities and organizations, too. The great thing about the IRS’s list is that it kills two birds with one stone, as it not only confirms the legitimacy of any listed organization, but it also lists organizations accepting tax-deductible donations.
Who are the most vulnerable targets?
Since charity scams target anyone who wishes to donate, the truth is that everyone’s vulnerable. You could possibly make an argument that since millennials have been considered the “most generous” generation and also the most likely to fall for scams that they’re potentially more likely to encounter or fall for one of these scams, but there’s no data directly confirming this.
What are the biggest red flags that something is a scam?
Typically, all of the signs of a scam will be present within seconds of a scammer’s initial approach. Scammers tend to be very general about their purpose because they usually engage victims through mass unsolicited messages. Generally, if someone receives an invitation to give from a charity they’ve never worked with or donated to, they should automatically be suspicious.
Additionally, scammers’ pitches tend to promote both a false sense of urgency and an emotional response, while legitimate charities encourage would-be donors to give at their leisure. If an individual receives an unsolicited request to donate, especially in person, they should take a step back and make sure they get as much information about the organization as possible. If they really feel compelled to donate, they can ask for the organization’s website, mission statements and other details to confirm its legitimacy.
How do you know if you’ve been scammed afterward, and how can you report it?
It can be very difficult for someone to know if they’ve been scammed, especially with charity scams. Unlike other scams, the pretense of donating to charity provides a really good context for taking money. Donors expect to part with their money after donating and don’t necessarily follow-up with how an organization spends their contribution. In that regard, unless a scammer combines a charity scam with some other type of harmful behavior, like identity theft, it may be hard for a victim to learn they were scammed, and even if they did, there’s no guarantee that they’d necessarily connect the dots to the fraudulent charity.
That said, if a donor suspects they’ve been swindled, they should immediately report it to the FTC and/or to watchdog organizations like the BBB. While this won’t necessarily provide restitution, it might help put the scammer out of business.
Are there scam “trends,” and if so, what are the newest ones that people may not know about?
There are really no new trends specific to charity scams, although it’s worth pointing out that, in general, scams have gotten more sophisticated. In the past, an individual could reliably identify communications from scammers because they’d be rife with grammatical errors, implausible stories or other notable errors.
However, not only are scams (especially email-based ones) more convincing, in some cases, if the scammer has even a little bit of information about a target, they can personalize the message. This kind of scam, often referred to as spear phishing, is something consumers should be on the lookout for. Just because a message is personalized, or even purportedly comes from someone an individual knows, doesn’t mean they should assume the message is legitimate. Also, be skeptical of charities asking for donations via a crowdfunding site, as these requests aren’t always as genuine as they appear.
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What else can people donate, besides money, that may prevent them from being scammed?
People should consider donating goods, like clothing or groceries, or their time to charities in their community. The good news is that the former is tax deductible, assuming the organization is authorized by the IRS to accept tax-deductible donations. Additionally, helping out local organizations is simply a good way to improve your own community while doing something that feels good.