How to avoid scams in the wake of the storm

Don’t be duped by fraudsters—investigate before you donate to victims

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

You’ve seen the dra­mat­ic footage of res­cues and calami­ties, shots of strand­ed fam­i­lies, pets and wildlife—even giant carp—and you’ve prob­a­bly had the same reac­tion many oth­er Amer­i­cans had the past few weeks: “How can I help?”

There are myr­i­ad ways you can ease the suf­fer­ing and hard­ship being expe­ri­enced in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, but there also are a num­ber of pit­falls to watch out for.

Adam Levin, chair­man and co-founder of Credit.com and Cyber­Scout (for­mer­ly IDT911)

It is quite easy to fall prey to scam artists who come out in full force when­ev­er a dis­as­ter of this mag­ni­tude occurs. In fact, the Nation­al Cen­ter for Dis­as­ter Fraud (NCDF) was insti­tut­ed after Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na with a mis­sion to hold post-dis­as­ter scam artists in check.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, crim­i­nals can exploit dis­as­ters, such as Hur­ri­cane Har­vey,” a recent NCDF release warned. These crim­i­nals have one goal: to get rich (or less poor) quick by send­ing crooked communications—and it doesn’t mat­ter if it’s via SMS, email, social media or fraud­u­lent web­sites designed to solic­it contributions.

Sev­er­al state attor­neys gen­er­al have sent out sim­i­lar com­mu­niqués over the past week. If you want to help but are wor­ried about scams, we’ve out­lined best prac­tices for you here.

What to avoid

There are many ways a scam can go down. It’s worth bear­ing in mind that, just as you go to work, these crim­i­nals also are “going to work”—but their job is con­jur­ing up new and inge­nious ways to gar­ner ill-got­ten gains.

Pho­ny web­sites: One ploy that hap­pens every year is in con­nec­tion with the annu­al reg­is­tra­tion of storm names. Each spring, when the Nation­al Weath­er Ser­vice announces the ros­ter of storm names, pho­ny web­sites are reg­is­tered using those storm names. These are hedges. Should the par­tic­u­lar storm occur, the scam­mer is ready with a web­site pur­port­ing to col­lect relief funds—but in this case, it is relief from the criminal’s unbear­able urge to sep­a­rate you from your mon­ey, and, worse, your desire to help.

Crowd­sourc­ing: Anoth­er com­mon ploy is the GoFundMe page. Some­times these pages are legit­i­mate, but it’s up to you to do the research to fig­ure that out. Crowd­sourc­ing sites like GoFundMe pro­vide you with the means to com­mu­ni­cate with the orga­niz­er request­ing funds, and you should always do so before donating.

Just because you saw the sto­ry of a par­tic­u­lar person’s hor­ren­dous plight on the news doesn’t mean the GoFundMe cam­paign is legit­i­mate. Scam artists saw the same seg­ment. If you have any ques­tions about a par­tic­u­lar page, you should con­tact the crowd­sourc­ing site direct­ly in addi­tion to the orga­niz­er of the cam­paign that you’d like to help.

Email appeals: Do not reply to email appeals. Don’t do it if it’s an orga­ni­za­tion that you’ve giv­en mon­ey to over and over. Don’t do it even if it’s your mom. Just don’t do it. The chances that you’re being bait­ed into a phish­ing scam are high. It’s eas­i­er and safer to delete that mes­sage and type the URL of what­ev­er char­i­ty is mak­ing the appeal into a secure­ly con­nect­ed inter­net brows­er instead.

The same goes for emails that link to images of a storm’s after­math. Do not click those links.

For­ward­ed emails: Nev­er click on links emailed to you about big news events, even if they come from friends or fam­i­ly, unless you con­firm with the sender that they actu­al­ly sent the link. But, even then, be wary. They may just be for­ward­ing a mal­ware-laden email they received from some­one they thought they knew (who was a scam­mer mas­querad­ing as the per­son they thought they knew). Email accounts can be spoofed, and any iden­ti­ty thief worth their salt can quick­ly and eas­i­ly scam you using this method.

Nev­er for­get, if a scam­mer can get you to click on the right mal­ware, they can drain your bank accounts or avail­able cred­it, open accounts in your name, take advan­tage of your access to health care, divert your tax refunds, or com­mit oth­er crimes in your name.

It’s also impor­tant to watch out for relief-relat­ed fraud. There have been mul­ti­ple reports of peo­ple imper­son­at­ing FEMA inspec­tors, insur­ance inspec­tors, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Nation­al Flood Insur­ance Pro­gram. These imper­son­ators per­form anoth­er form of fraud—filing claims for relief mon­ey in your name.

Bet­ter bets

If you’re look­ing for vet­ted places where your mon­ey will do the most good, there are many legit­i­mate sources of infor­ma­tion about help­ful organizations.

If you see a sto­ry that inter­ests you, get in touch direct­ly with the orga­ni­za­tion or per­son fea­tured. In our con­nect­ed soci­ety, this is almost always pos­si­ble, and it cuts out the risk of “get­ting got” by some­one in the mid­dle look­ing to take your mon­ey and run.

Before you sub­mit your pay­ment, make sure the char­i­ty you select­ed can actu­al­ly deliv­er relief to vic­tims. There are legit­i­mate char­i­ty efforts that sim­ply can­not deliv­er, often due to a lack of on-the-ground resources. Check to see if the char­i­ty you’re inter­est­ed in already has oper­a­tions in place, and if they don’t, find one that does.

If you’re wor­ried you may have been the vic­tim of iden­ti­ty theft or cred­it card fraud, you’ll want to check your bank accounts and cred­it reports reg­u­lar­ly for sus­pi­cious activ­i­ty. You can check your cred­it report for free at Credit.com.

 Full dis­clo­sure: Cyber­Scout spon­sors Third­Cer­tain­ty. This sto­ry orig­i­nat­ed as an Op/Ed con­tri­bu­tion to Credit.com and does not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent the views of the com­pa­ny or its partners.

 Sto­ries relat­ed to iden­ti­ty theft:
Iden­ti­ty Theft: What You Need to Know
3 Dumb Things You Can Do With Email
How Can You Tell If Your Iden­ti­ty Has Been Stolen?