Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti disaster brings out charity scams

How to be sure your donation goes to the right place

The devastation is complete, the magnitude of human suffering incomprehensible, the needs immense. The people of Haiti, victims of serial disasters in recent years that now pale in comparison to Tuesday's powerful earthquake, urgently need your help.

But be careful, especially if you are about to make a donation using your credit card. Experts say scammers already are at work -- and you must not allow your heart to get ahead of your head.

Their top three tips:

•When it comes to your credit card number, don't let your guard down, even in response to a disaster as mammoth as the Haitian earthquake and situations as dire as those confronted by survivors. Never give out your credit card number or other personal information to people who reach you through unsolicited telephone calls. Keep in mind that we all remain vulnerable to identity theft.

•Funnel your donations through major, well-known relief organizations -- and, if you are doing this over the Internet, make sure that the link really connects to that group. Verify the legitimacy of charities by using Web sites such as the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, which provides a robust portfolio of tools for donors, Charity or the American Institute of Philanthropy, which has compiled a list of recommended Haitian relief organizations.

•Do not respond to unsolicited e-mails -- and never click on a link that is included in such an e-mail. If you believe that you or others have been victimized by an online scam related to the Haitian disaster or any other event, federal authorities urge you to file a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The importance of these tips (more follow below) cannot be overemphasized, especially now and in coming weeks, as the full extent of the ruin and agony in Haiti becomes known -- and as scammers elevate their efforts to prey on well-intentioned donors.

One leading indicator: The FBI said it began receiving reports of suspicious activity within hours of the first reports of Tuesday's earthquake. Another indicator: Thousands of people were defrauded by bogus "charities" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's assault on New Orleans in 2005.

Past tragedies and natural disasters have prompted individuals with criminal intent to solicit contributions purportedly for a charitable organization and/or a good cause.

-- FBI Warning!

"The FBI today reminds Internet users who receive appeals to donate money in the aftermath of Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti to apply a critical eye and do their due diligence before responding to those requests," the agency said in a statement.

"Past tragedies and natural disasters have prompted individuals with criminal intent to solicit contributions purportedly for a charitable organization and/or a good cause."

The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, several state attorney generals and consumer advocates have also sounded similar warnings.

"Not only do Americans need to be concerned about avoiding fraud, they also need to make sure their money goes to competent relief organizations that are equipped and experienced to handle the unique challenges of providing assistance," said Art Taylor, president and chief executive officer of the Wise Giving Alliance.

Said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, which represents 280 national, state and local consumer organizations: "Only give to charities you know well and trust." creditcards

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