How to Avoid Being Scammed by Fake Charities

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PENNSYLVANIA — With many people planning charitable giving this time of year, the Pennsylvania Department of State is sharing tips and best practices to help consumers make sure their contributions are going to legitimate charitable organizations and causes.

“The holiday season brings out the spirit of giving, and it is important for Pennsylvanians to give responsibly,” said Acting Secretary of State Leigh M. Chapman. “Sadly, every year criminals try to take advantage of generous people by conning them into giving to a group or person that is not a legitimate, registered charity.”

Consumers can prevent becoming a victim by learning how to identify a charity scam. Here are some red flags of potential charity scams:

Similar sounding name: Scammers often use names that sound similar to legitimate charities to intentionally create confusion.

High-pressure solicitation: Fraudsters will try to force a hasty decision by turning up the pressure. They may cold call, identifying you as a previous contributor, and asking for your renewed support or to update your credit card information. These attempts rely on catching consumers off guard to extract financial information.

100% guarantee: Most people want to ensure that their donations are going toward legitimate program expenses. Every organization has some level of administrative cost, which can include mailing and printing, rent and utilities, staff or fundraising. An organization that promises that 100% of your funds are going directly to an individual in need might require additional scrutiny.

Donation by wire transfer: Legitimate charities will not ask you to make payment via money order or wire transfer. If you are being solicited for a donation and are asked to pay by these means, hang up immediately.

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Donation by gift card: A charity may ask for donations of gift cards, such as from a grocery store, to supply to someone in need, but you should never read the information from a gift card over the phone or provide it via email. After verifying the legitimacy of the charity, take any physical gift card donation directly to the location of the charity and request documentation of your contribution.

“The Department of State offers useful tips on charitable giving to protect people from being taken advantage of,” Chapman said. “I’m urging all donors to review these tips and consider the following recommendations before donating this year.”

Here are a few tips that can help you avoid being the victim of a charity scam:

Do your homework before giving.

  • Visit the Department of State’s online charities database to verify that an organization is registered to solicit in Pennsylvania and to see its basic financial information about expenses for program services, fundraising and management.
  • You can also check to see if an organization has been subject to corrective action by the Department of State’s Bureau of Corporations and Charitable Organizations by checking its enforcement and disciplinary actions page.
  • Check whether an organization is registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt organization.
  • Groups such as the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator and CharityWatch offer information and ratings about charitable organizations.

Don’t feel pressured to donate on the spot. Do research before sharing your money or information.

Check websites closely. Charity scams can be vehicles for identity theft by directing victims to fake websites where personal and financial information can be stolen.

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Avoid wire transfer or money order donations. Any requests for these kinds of payments should be approached with caution.

Direct your payment to the charity. Never make a check payable to an individual; write the check to the verified organization.

If you think you have been the victim of a charity scam, contact the Department of State’s Division of Charities Investigation Unit/Audits at [email protected] or use the department’s online complaint form. You should also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov and contact local law enforcement through non-emergency channels.

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