Securing Our Communities: Charity Scams

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

Each week, the NTIC Cyber Center highlights a different social engineering scam impacting individuals and communities within the National Capital Region. We encourage everyone to share this information with friends, colleagues, and loved ones to help reduce their risk of becoming a victim of financial fraud and identity theft.

Charity scams, also known as donation scams or charity fraud, are a type of social engineering scheme in which the perpetrator elicits money or personal information from victims through fake charities and popular social causes. Perpetrators emotionally manipulate kind-hearted and generous individuals using sad stories and spoofed correspondence that appears legitimate. They target victims using email, social media, websites, voice messaging services, crowd funding platforms, and even in person.

Charity scams often surface in the hours and days following tragic events to maximize profits by exploiting the empathetic nature of others. For example, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, two individuals exploited the tragedy and were subsequently arrested for fraud. One of the scammers created a charity to supposedly raise money for school safety and victims of violence in the days following the school shooting. However, investigators discovered that he used the donations to fund his own personal training business. The other perpetrator claimed she was the aunt of one of the victims and solicited money for a fraudulent funeral fund on social media. Government agencies such as the US Federal Trade Commission often issue warnings after tragic events and natural disasters to remind people of the importance of carefully researching charities prior to making donations.

To reduce your risk of donating to a fraudulent charity, the NTIC Cyber Center provides the following tips to help you recognize the potential warning signs of this type of scam:

  • Be skeptical of any request or solicitation associated with sad personal stories that lack a clear explanation of who will receive the funds and how the donation will be used, especially those requested in haste. Scammers want you to act quickly without thinking.

  • Scrutinize the identity of solicitors and request written official documentation to ensure charity legitimacy. Scammers will often try and masquerade as well-established charity organizations by copying logos or using similar names in online or printed correspondence.

  • Think twice if funds are requested in the form of wire transfers, gift cards, cash, or material items, as these methods make it difficult to recover funds after you have been scammed. Using credit cards to make donations is a safer alternative as charges can usually be reversed if you suspect fraud.

  • Never use payment portals originating from links in emails as they can lead you to malicious and fraudulent websites. Instead, visit the charity organization’s website directly to donate. Never open links or attachments in emails from unsolicited or unknown senders.

  • Before donating, check charity watchdog sites such as BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, CharityWatch, and GuideStar to see if there have been any complaints filed about the organization in question.

  • Monitor your financial statements to verify that the amount charged equals the amount you agreed to donate and see if you've been unknowingly enrolled into recurring donations. Follow up with the organization to find out how your money was used.

  • Vet crowdfunding charity campaigns extensively before donating. Crowdfunding platforms have different regulatory standards and donations may be more difficult to track through this option.

Report all charity scams attempts to your local police department, offending social media platforms, and the US Federal Trade Commission.

The NTIC is governed by a privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protection policy to promote conduct that complies with applicable federal, state, and local laws. The NTIC does not seek or retain any information about individuals or organizations solely on the basis of their religious, political or social views or activities; their participation in a particular noncriminal organization or lawful event; or their race, ethnicities, citizenships, places of origin, ages, disabilities, genders, or sexual orientations. No information is gathered or collected by the NTIC in violation of federal or state laws or regulations.