How To Help Without Becoming a Victim Yourself: Online Donating Do’s and Don’ts

Whether it’s a horrific shooting in Orlando, a flood in West Virginia, a hurricane in Haiti or a tsunami on the other side of the world, our instinct is to help when we see tragedy.

Scammers know this. So they set up fake websites and fake Twitter accounts and tell fake stories that are so compelling even sophisticated donors get fooled. Now more than ever, hacking and fraud are about psychology more than technology. Here’s what to do — and don’t do:

  • Don’t rely on your gut. Your gut is too trusting. Professional scammers build websites that look every bit as believable to your gut as websites built by legit developers.
  • Do run the charity name through an evaluator. Sites like Guidestar and Charity Navigator report and rate charities. However, new or smaller charities may not be listed.
  • Do choose crowdsource campaigns from someone you know personally or a verifiable organization. Sites like GoFundMe light up after a tragedy. For example, within days more than 150 GoFundMe campaigns were established for the Orlando shooting victims — the most successful one raised more than $2 million in one day. But it’s likely not all of the campaigns were legitimate. Make sure to follow the website’s safe donating practices.
  • Do navigate to trusted sites yourself. While you might not get the same emotional gratification as when helping a specific individual, you won’t get ripped off, either. To help those affected by the Orlando shooting, you can see the Better Business Bureau tips and CNN’s list of verified groups. To help victims of the West Virginia flooding, the American Red Cross West Virginia Region is a good place to start.
  • Don’t send cash — ever. Even if the reason someone asks for it seems plausible. Don’t use debit cards or bitcoin either — they’re the same as cash. Real fundraising efforts use real merchant services, not bitcoin or a bank account.
  • Don’t think your donation is the only thing you can lose. The scammers can keep using your credit card until you discover there’s a problem. Yes, your card is insured so you can be reimbursed, but you’ll have to prove the fraud, which involves filling out forms and waiting. Interestingly, the availability of insurance is one of the main reasons there’s not a lot of innovation about how to stop this kind of fraud.
  • Do change your credit card number if you’ve been scammed. Don’t forget to update any automatic payments with the new number as well.
  • Don’t bother trying to get the scammer prosecuted. There’s no one to do the prosecuting! The Internet has few clear jurisdictions. Even in major cases, figuring out who should bring charges is tricky. And if the scam came from outside the U.S., as many do, good luck with that. Here are the top 10 countries responsible for the most hacks: U.S., Russia, China, Ukraine, Germany, South Korea, Romania, India, Taiwan and Brazil.
  • Do bother filing a complaint with the FTC. It can help shut down fraudulent sites and will be used to track trends and prevent future scams. The FTC also has checklists and advice for donating safely.
  • Do lobby your representatives. Sounds tedious but if you think people should have some recourse after being ripped off, you need to tell the powers that be. Rampant fraud can have a chilling effect for good causes. No one wants that.
  • Do keep helping — don’t let the bad guys win! Just because you have to be careful about how you donate, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Follow these tips and follow your conscience.
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