Better Business Bureau warns of fraud

By on March 21, 2011

Chicago—Reports of the enormous damage from the devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit Japan last week resulted in damage to the Hawaii and the west coast of the U.S., and it has prompted many Americans to consider making donations to charities that provide relief to survivors.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises potential donors to be cautious, because fraudulent charities and individuals often crop up to take advantage of their sympathy for victims of natural disasters.

“Natural disasters are an opportunity for scammers to take advantage of generous Americans at all times. However, when a tragedy happens, they are the first to help victims. However, this generosity can be used by scammers, and potential donors must be extremely careful with whom they entrust with their donations. Be especially careful to check with the BBB and others agencies prior to writing that check,” said Steve J. Bernas, BBB president and CEO. “Donors should be certain their money goes to competent relief organizations that have the knowledge and experience to handle the huge challenges of providing assistance in a disaster zone.”

The best way to help is to donate money to a reputable humanitarian organization with a history of providing assistance in disasters and other crisis situations.

For more information about charities go to or When making a donation of any kind or entering into an agreement to obtain services, the BBB encourages consumers to follow certain guidelines, including:

• Do not respond to any unsolicited (spam) incoming e-mails, including clicking links contained within those messages, because they may contain computer viruses.

• Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as members of environmental organizations or officials asking for donations via e-mail or social networking sites.

• Beware of organizations with copy-cat names similar to but not exactly the same as those of reputable charities.

• Rather than follow a purported link to a website, verify the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations by utilizing various Internet-based resources that may assist in confirming the group’s existence and its nonprofit status.

• Be cautious of e-mails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files, because the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders.

• To ensure contributions are received and used for intended purposes, make contributions directly to known organizations rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf.

• Do not be pressured into making contributions; reputable charities do not use such tactics.

• Be aware of whom you are dealing with when providing your personal and financial information. Providing such information may compromise your identity and make you vulnerable to identity theft.

• Avoid cash donations if possible. Pay by debit or credit card, or write a check directly to the charity. Do not make checks payable to individuals.

• Legitimate charities do not normally solicit donations via money transfer services.

• Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations assist victims. All charities have fundraising and administrative costs. Even a credit card donation will involve, at a minimum, a processing fee.

• Be cautious when giving online to unfamiliar charities. Be wary of spam messages and e-mails that claim to link to a relief organization. After the tsunami disaster in 2004 and the earthquake in Haiti last year, many websites and organizations that were created overnight allegedly to help victims turned out to be scams.

• Find out if the charity has a presence in the impacted areas. Unless the charity already has staff in the affected areas, it may be difficult to get new aid workers into the area to provide assistance. See if the charity’s website clearly describes what they can do to address immediate needs.

• Find out if the charity is providing direct aid or raising money for other groups. You may want to avoid the middleman and give directly to charities that have a presence in the region. Check out the ultimate recipients of the donations to ensure that the organizations are equipped to effectively provide aid.

• Gifts of clothing, food or other in-kind donations may not be appropriate. Unless the organization has the staff and infrastructure to distribute such aid, the donations may be more of a burden than a help. Ask the charity about their transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those who are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.

• Legitimate charities websites end in .org rather than .com.

• Depend on respected experts to evaluate a charity. Be cautious when relying on recommendations by people such as bloggers, because they may not have fully researched the listed relief organizations. The BBB provides a Wise Giving Guide to charities at The guide shows which charities meet the BBB’s stringent standards.