The images we’ve all seen on the news in the last few days of the destruction from the recent wildfire has been heartbreaking. Some families have experienced great losses and are going to need a helping hand in order to move on from this tragedy. This inspires many of us to give what we can and, unfortunately scammers know that.
“The response from residents and businesses in our community has been overwhelmingly positive, “ says BBB president Tom Stephens “we know that people feel compelled to give because this tragedy hit so close to home, BBB just wants to make sure your donations end up in the hands of victims and not a scam artist.”
BBB is urging donors to use caution when donating to the victims of the recent wildfires. It’s not uncommon for scam artists and fraudulent charities to take advantage of people’s willingness to help when disaster strikes. Scammers depend on heightened emotion and often follow closely behind tragic events. It’s such a problem that in 2005, the Department of Justice created a special task force, the Disaster Fraud Task Force, dedicated to specifically investigating post-disaster fraud schemes.
BBB offers the following tips to help donors decide where to direct their donations to aid victims of disasters:
Thoughtful Giving -The first request for a donation may not always be the best choice. Take the time to check out the charity to avoid wasting your generosity by donating to a questionable or poorly managed effort.
State Government Registration -The State of Florida requires charities to register with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. If the charity is not registered, that may be a red flag.
Respecting Victims and Their Families - Have the victims’ families given permission to others to use either their names or photographs in fundraising efforts?
How Will Donations Be Used? - Watch out for vague appeals that don’t identify the intended use of funds. Ask how the donations will help victims’ families and how the funds will be distributed. Don’t automatically assume that funds collected quickly in the wake of a tragedy will be spent just as quickly. See if the appeal identifies when the collected funds will be used.
What if a Family Sets Up Its Own Assistance Fund? - Some families may decide to set up their own assistance funds. Be mindful that such funds may not be set up as charities. Also, make sure that collected monies are received and administered by a third party such as a bank, CPA or lawyer. This will help provide oversight and ensure the collected funds are used appropriately (e.g., paying for funeral costs, counseling, and other tragedy-related needs.)
Online Cautions Never click on links to charities on unfamiliar websites, from social media posts or sent via text or email. -These may take you to fraudulent sites where you will be asked to provide personal financial information or to click on something that downloads harmful malware to your computer. Don’t assume that charity recommendations on Facebook, blogs or other social media have already been vetted. If you want to give to a charity involved in relief efforts, go directly to the charity’s website.
Financial Transparency - After funds are raised for a tragedy, it is even more important for organizations to provide an accounting of how funds were spent. Transparent organizations will post this information on their websites so that anyone can find out and not have to wait until the audited financial statements are available sometime in the future.
Newly Created or Established Organizations - While this is a personal giving choice, established charities will more likely have the experience to quickly address the circumstances and have a track record that can be evaluated. A newly formed organization may be well-meaning but might be difficult to check out and may not be well managed.
Tax Deductibility - Not all organizations collecting funds to assist tragedy victims are tax exempt as charities under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Keep this in mind if you want to take a deduction for federal income tax purposes. In addition, contributions that are donor-restricted to help a specific individual/family are not deductible as charitable donations, even if the recipient organization is a charity.
Gifts of Clothing, Food or In-Kind Donations - In kind drives for food and clothing, while well intentioned, may not necessarily be the quickest way to help those in need – unless the organization has the staff and infrastructure to distribute such aid properly. Ask the charity about its transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those who are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.
For more than 100 years, Better Business Bureau has been helping people find businesses, brands and charities they can trust. In 2014, people turned to BBB more than 165 million times for BBB Business Reviews on more than 4.7 million businesses and Charity Reports on 11,000 charities, all available for free at bbb.org. The Council of Better Business Bureaus is the umbrella organization for 113 local, independent BBBs in the United States, Canada and Mexico, as well as home to its national programs on dispute resolution, advertising review, and industry self-regulation. BBB Serving Northeast Florida & The Southeast Atlantic was founded in 1987 and serves 57 counties.