As people struggle to rebuild their lives, homes, and businesses after the hurricanes of Harvey and Irma, many others are looking for safe and effective ways to donate. Sadly, criminals have found a means to exploit such tragedies to appeal to your sense of generosity.
There was horrendous behavior involving fake and questionable charitable relief organizations and fundraising after Hurricane Katrina. This included scams that targeted people who had actually lost their homes and loved ones. Congress subsequently passed a bill called the Emergency Disaster Assistance Fraud Penalty Enhancement Act. The FBI has since pursued justice for natural disaster victims and issued criminal charges against over 900 people.
If you’re looking for a way to give, The Bennett Law Firm urges you to be cautious of potential charity scams. Do some research to ensure that your donation will go to a reputable organization that will use the money as promised.
Consider these tips when asked to give:
Before you open your heart and your wallet for today’s victims, we urge the following:
1. Validate any prospective charity before giving your money and time. The New York Times has compiled a comprehensive list of charities and other groups that need help – and where you can safely donate:
Websites such as GuideStar and CharityNavigator can also help you vet prospective charities. Both have been updated to reflect donation related to the recent hurricanes.
2. Take recommendations you get from Facebook, Twitter, email or social media with a grain of salt – especially if you don’t recognize the name of the organization. Even if a referral comes from a trusted friend, don’t assume the friend endorsed it.
3. Be on the alert for copycat websites. Just because an organization sounds legitimate doesn’t mean it is. Anyone with reasonable technical know-how can create an elegant website to front a scam. Following Katrina, the FBI found and researched at least 15 websites created to mimic the American Red Cross’s site to solicit donations. And that was 13 years ago – imagine how sophisticated modern scammers are by comparison. Visit authorized charity websites only, and avoid clicking on strange links in emails.
4. Limit the information you share. It’s one thing to give out your name and email address. It’s another thing entirely to pay for something online – especially via an unfamiliar gateway. Verify, verify, verify. Use services like PayPal, which can provide some protection against fraud. And avoid giving away truly personal information, like your Social Security Number. There’s no reason a charity would need that information, and it opens you up to possible identity theft.
5. Report suspicious links and behavior. Be a good citizen. Alert authorities, and stop others from getting scammed. Get in touch with the Attorney General’s office in your state. Look to the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network or the Better Business Bureau, whose Wise Giving Alliance is also an up-to-date resource for insights about safe donations.
6. (In general), avoid sending money internationally to support a domestic victims’ relief effort. Yes, plenty of worthy international aid organizations do great work. But many scammers operate internationally to escape the long arm of the law in the U.S. If you do give to a (reputable) overseas charity to help with Harvey or Irma, you still must follow U.S. IRS rules for charitable giving.
7. Be mindful about your deductions – and talk to your tax attorney, advisor or accountant about best practices. Generally speaking, gifts made directly to individual victims are not deductible charitable contributions. Gifts must be made to qualified charitable organizations, which include nonprofit social service agencies (like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross); federal, state and local governments (for public purposes); churches, synagogues, temples and mosques; nonprofit schools and hospitals; and certain war veterans’ organizations. The IRS has a search tool to determine whether an organization is tax exempt, but note that some churches and other religious institutions may not be listed on their service.
Both in-kind and monetary donations are deductible. The value of your volunteer time or services is not deductible, although out-of-pocket expenses while providing volunteer services to a qualified charitable organization may be. Out-of-pocket expenses are costs that would not be incurred absent the volunteer service (such as a special uniform needed to be a volunteer, or the cost of gas to travel to the volunteer site). IRS rules says you should not include personal, living or family expenses in these deductions.
Remember emergency relief organizations often prefer to receive money over donated items, which can only be deducted at their fair market value.
8. All the above caveats notwithstanding, please DO help. As news reports and social media reveal, the need is overwhelming in many communities.