When Tragedy Strikes, Fake Charities Pounce: Tips to Prevent Bank Fraud, Identity Theft


Tips to Prevent Bank Fraud, Identity TheftAfter any national tragedy, an outpouring of grief and sympathy from Americans and people around the world is common and a way to come together. Offers of assistance and donations typically flood in after such tragedies, offering evidence that goodwill and kindness still exist among a seemingly divided country. Unfortunately, those with ill-intentions will always find a way to take advantage of people’s kindness.

In the past such scams were usually perpetrated by mail or by phone. Technology, specifically the Internet, is starting to take its place as the preferred method of fraud. Almost immediately after the Boston bombing, someone set up a fake Twitter account with the intention of appealing for donations. The scam was uncovered by the Better Business Bureau and the account has since been suspended. After the tragedy in Texas a video of the fertilizer plant explosion began circulating on social media, but when a link included with the video was clicked it would attempt to download malware.

The proliferation of such scams following hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, and Rita prompted the Department of Justice to establish a special division in 2005, the National Center for Disaster Fraud. The stated mission is to deter and prosecute fraud associated with disaster relief programs. It has issued guidelines intended to protect the public from these types of scams. Among those recommendations are the following:

  • Never respond to unsolicited email and especially avoid clicking any links enclosed because it may download malicious software or viruses.

  • Beware solicitations from groups that mimic the names of well known charitable organizations.

  • Never give out personal information such as Social Security numbers, credit card info or bank account information as doing so can lead to bank fraud and identity theft.

  • Avoid giving donations in cash. Instead use a credit or debit card or write a check as these methods offer some protection if the solicitation turns out to be fraudulent.

  • Never follow a link to a site you find suspicious. Instead check out the legitimacy of an organization by doing an Internet search for information or checking with organizations like the Better Business Bureau.

  • Be wary of solicitations from anyone representing themselves as survivors or family members of survivors of tragedies, as well as those saying they represent a government agency, even if they seem to have official identification.

  • If asked to make a donation to an organization known to be legitimate by an individual claiming to be a representative, opt instead to make the donation directly to the organization.

  • Most legitimate organizations will never ask for a money transfer through such services as Western Union. These are almost impossible to trace once they’ve been cashed.

  • Most legitimate charities website URL’s will have the suffix .org rather than .com.

  • Beware of anyone wanting a donation immediately. Instead ask for written materials or a donation envelope to be mailed. No real charity will demand an immediate payment. Never tolerate pressure to do so.

The best defense against disaster related scams is research. The BBB offers a great resource for checking out charities with its Wise Giving Alliance website. Do an Internet search on any organization that’s unfamiliar. Check to see how much of a donation actually goes to the victims and survivors. Even well-known organizations have been known to use a large percentage of donations on administration, salaries, and even fraud.

Following these basic guidelines and using some common sense will help ensure these scams don’t succeed.


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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.