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Gephardt Gets It: Legitimate charity or scam?

By Bill Gephardt | Posted - Nov 8th, 2012 @ 8:00am


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SALT LAKE CITY -- There's a lot of good happening in the wake of superstorm Sandy: Celebrities raising money with concerts, airlines waiving fees to re-book flights, even banks cutting customers some slack.

But scammers can take advantage of our generosity. In this case, we found them creating bogus websites to steal your money rather than help those in need. The online thieves count on the fact that the public will see pictures of devastation and want to help.

"This kind of cyber scam following a big natural disaster is 100 percent predictable," said Marian Merrill, a Norton Safety advocate.

Merrill has seen cyber criminals jump at the chance to take advantage of the public's generosity. One email we tracked down has a picture of a car underwater and asks for money to help the victims. Merrill says she sees this during every disaster.

"Yeah, we saw it back with the Haitian earthquake. We saw it last year with the Japanese earthquake and tsunami," she said.

The only way to be sure that your donation does not go to a thief is to investigate every individual organization that asks for money. But that can be a time-consuming investigation.

Merrill's advice: "Please use credible, nationally known charities like the American Red Cross. That's really your best bet."

Often, people looking for money will use an email or a text message. Merrill says never respond to one of those or click on the links in those emails.

Beware of charities that:
  • Ask for too much information, like date of birth, social security number, driver license info
  • Contact you via Email out of the blue if you've never contributed to them previously
  • Send email with an attachment
More tips at Charity Navigator

These messages might have hyped headlines and Photoshopped pictures trying to pull at your good intentions. The message takes you to a website that asks for your credit card information. We were unable to find out where your money goes from there.

Also be cautious using search engines. Search engine poisoning is the deliberate manipulation of search engine indexes so dangerous websites appear higher up in the results when you search for things like "Sandy", "hurricane," or "Sandy victims."

"You should always use that theme of 'Stop, think, and connect' -- whenever you encounter emotion or it feels like a hype -- before you click on it, before you share private or financial information," she said.

There's also a website called charitynavigator.org. You can search there for credible charities that will send your money to a good cause instead of to people taking advantage of you. The Better Business Bureau also has a tool to help research charities.

"So, just be cautious," Merrill said. "Take your time and direct those donations to the credible charities."

Bottom line: There is no foolproof way to determine whether or not a charity or help organization is perfectly legitimate. Sometimes, the security software on your computer will help to filter out results that lead to a scammer's website, but even that can be manipulated. People who spend time on the Internet know despite security, it's possible to be fooled into clicking on something or giving to something, only to have the money vanish.

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