Last December, senior citizen Michele Johnston heard a knock on her front door. She was not surprised to have visitors asking her to donate to a charity – December is the month of giving after all! Mrs. Johnston thought she recognized the name of the organization and the visitors explained how an immediate monetary donation would be used to purchase meals for struggling families in South America. Her church was participating in a similar charity, so Mrs. Johnston agreed to donate and gave the charity representatives $100 in cash. It wasn’t until her church small group was discussing how to properly research if a charity is legitimate did she realize she was probably scammed.
As the holidays approach, Elder Protective Services encourages seniors, their loved ones, and caretakers to review popular charity scams. Below we discuss common charity scams, the warning signs and red flags, and how to protect yourself and others against them.
The General Scam: A criminal asks for monetary donations in person (door-to-door), through mail, over the phone, in an email, or through an online platform. The scammer will create a believable pretense, such as a familiar organization name like Project Cure Peach County, or a website or social media platform filled with event photos. Like most scams, the criminal will create a fake sense of urgency to sway the potential victim to “donate” on the spot. In the best case scenario, a senior may lose $100 cash. In the worst, an unsuspecting elder may have their identity stolen and lose much more.
Holiday Scams: Michele Johnston is a great example of the type of adults criminals target for charity scams. Mrs. Johnston is depicted as being older, religious, and kind-hearted. But the scammer that exploited Mrs. Johnston also used the season of giving as another pressure tactic. Many older Americans donate time, gifts, and money during the holidays and criminals take advantage of that. Other holiday scam victims have explained that they were asked to give or match a donation they made in the past, even if they did not remember donating to the organization. In reality, these victims never actually made a donation the previous year.
Advice from the FTC: Remember, real charities accept donations YEAR ROUND!
Disaster and Tragedy Scams: When tragedy strikes, like a natural disaster or military conflict that makes national news, charities reach out through various avenues to ask for donations, physical and monetary. Although there are real, legitimate organizations that raise money for victims of such tragedies, many are scammers capitalizing on the misfortune of others.
Many of these con artists use social media like Facebook, YouTube, Tiktok, or Instagram as well as crowdfunding sites to ask for donations. Some crowdfunding sites, like Kickstarter or GoFundMe, quickly collect small amounts of monetary donations from a large group of people. However, due to their popularity, fraudulent fundraisers might not be noticed until the fraudster has acquired a huge amount of money.
On social media, scammers pay to advertise their fake fundraising site. Potential victims may see a link they can click to donate to an important cause currently highlighted by the media. Once clicked, the link opens to a website where there seems to be real photos of the tragic event. These types of images further encourage the kind-hearted person to donate. But if the website is fake, the money goes right to the scammer and not to the people in need.
Advice from Elder Protective Services: NEVER click on links or share them with your friends unless you are sure the charity is legitimate.
Firefighter, Police, and Military Scams: Another popular charity scam focuses on asking donations for public service officials such as firefighters, police officers, and veterans. Scammers may ask in person, carrying a boot with a picture of a service member in order to prey on the emotions of potential victims. Others may call or email stating they are asking for monetary donations to make and send care packages to soldiers.
Advice from Elder Protective Services: Do not just give money! Instead, call your local fire or police department and ask if they have a current fundraiser. If they do, donate directly through the department AND notify the proper authorities about the suspicious service solicitation.
The Red Flags
Although each charity scam may seem different, there are several warning signs that indicate the charity is fraudulent or the scenario is potentially dangerous. If you feel that you have experienced a charity scam, use the steps below to report to the appropriate authorities.
Scare Tactics: Scammers often create a fake sense of urgency to persuade potential victims to donate right away. These pressure tactics can make elders feel helpless and uncomfortable, thus more willing to give into the scammer’s demands.
Fake Information: Like most impostor scams, a con artist will mimic the resources of other reputable charities, such as organization names, phone numbers, websites, and even flyers from a real charity. Elder Protective Services advises to ALWAYS do your own research when making monetary donations through an online platform.
Cash, Money Wire, or Gift Card Donations: Asking for donations in cash may not be a tell-tale sign that the charity is fake, but if cash is the ONLY option you are likely dealing with a scammer. Additionally, do not trust any organization that requests a money wire or gift card. Once you send a gift card, you cannot track it or get it back.
Not Tax Deductible: If a charitable organization is unable to provide proof, like a receipt or donation letter, that states your monetary donation is tax deductible, it may be a scam. Use caution when donating online through a crowdfunding site. Your online gift cannot be used as a tax deduction because the recipient is not registered as a charity.
Requests for Sensitive or Financial Information: NEVER provide your personal information (bank account number, Social Security number, etc.) to strangers.
You can protect yourself and loved ones from falling prey to charity scams by:
Researching: Elder Protective Services encourages you to always research a group before giving them money. The FTC advises seniors to use the following organizations for research because they “offer reports and ratings about how charitable organizations spend donations and how they conduct business”:
In addition, the IRS’s Tax Exempt Organization Search tells you if your donation would be tax deductible.
Question How Donations are Used: If speaking to a charity representative in person or on the phone, you should always ask where the monetary donation goes. If the representative cannot answer the question accurately, do not donate at that moment. If you are interested in donating, complete some additional research. AARP states that “One rule of thumb, used by Wise Giving Alliance, is that at least 65 percent of a charity’s total expenses should go directly to serving its mission.”
Always Document: Keeping a record of your monetary donations is not just for tax purposes. Writing down your donation information will help in case an organization asks you to make a monetary donation “like you did last year.” If you don’t have the information written down, it is likely a scam. Always write down when you donated, who you donated to, and how much money you gave.
Never Donate by Wire Transfer, Gift Card, or Cryptocurrency: Scammers prefer these methods because they are harder to track. In general, using credit cards or checks are safer.
Guard Your Financial Information: Only scammers will demand money, bank account number or Social Security number. NEVER provide your personal information to someone you do not know.
Do Not Give Into Demands: Scammers pressure unsuspecting elders with scare tactics and a fake sense of urgency. Protect yourself by asking the organization to send you materials before donating. Any respectable and legitimate charity will appreciate your interest. It is okay to take your time and research a group before donating to their cause.
Charity scammers target unsuspecting elders due to their trusting nature and willingness to support others. Many scammers use this kind-hearted nature to exploit money from senior citizens by employing pressure tactics that play on their emotions. Elder Protective Services believes the best way to protect yourself or your loved ones from charity scams is to be aware of the red flags and put protective measures in place. If a charitable organization asks you for a donation, remember to:
Steps to Report Charity Scams or Disaster Fraud
Contact your local authorities. According to the FTC, you can find your state charity regulator at nasconet.org. Most states require the charity or its fundraiser to register to ask for donations.
Report Charity Scams to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC is responsible for protecting consumers and their personal information. The FTC cannot resolve individual complaints, but they provide individualized next steps.
File a complaint with the IC3. The IC3 is the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a government agency that makes it easy for individuals to report a crime that takes place online. They work with the FBI and local authorities to help manage and solve internet scams, such as rental listing scams.
Contact your credit card company. Report the unauthorized charges or if you think a scammer stole your credit card number. Each credit card company will provide additional next steps.
If you believe you gave your personal information to a scammer, go to IdentityTheft.gov for steps you can take to protect your identity.
Daniel Klibanoff, an advocate for seniors, is currently serving as the President and CEO of Multimedia Lists, Inc. Daniel is also the founder and director of Elder Protective Services, an enterprise aimed to serve and protect elders. Learn more at https://elderprotectiveservices.org/
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