It’s heartening to see neighbors helping neighbors in storm damaged areas across Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, but not everyone is stirred by compassion and generosity. Unscrupulous scammers are using social media and email to take advantage of the kindness of Americans in the wake of recent storms, according to a release from the FBI.
Multiple federal authorities are issuing warnings for potential donors to be on guard.
“Criminals can exploit disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey, for their own gain by sending fraudulent communications through email or social media,” according to the National Center for Disaster Fraud.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) warned that phishing scams and bogus email solicitations may target potential givers. US-CERT warned users to be wary when handling unsolicited e-mails with subject lines, hyperlinks, and attachments related to Hurricane Harvey. The Department of Justice also issued a reminder last week to be vigilant about potentially fraudulent activity on the heels of the recent record-breaking storms.
“Emails requesting donations from duplicitous charitable organizations commonly appear after major natural disasters,” reported US-CERT, an organization within the Department of Homeland Security that analyzes and responds to emerging cyber threats.
The National Center for Disaster Fraud, which was established by the Justice Department to investigate fraud in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, said in press release last week that tips regarding suspected fraud should be reported by phone to (866) 720-5721 or by email to email@example.com. Suspected internet-based fraud can also be reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, at www.ic3.gov.
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region in 2005, the immediate devastation was followed by years of complaints of fraud, the FBI said. In the four years after Katrina, the fraud task force — consisting of more than two dozen local, state, and federal agencies, including the FBI — received more than 36,000 complaints. By 2009, more than 1,300 individuals had been indicted for Katrina-related crimes.
To assist those seeking guidance about credible charitable organizations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tweeted a link to “trusted sources for helping out with #Harvey,” which takes users to the website for National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. The Virginia-based non-profit group describes itself as an “association of organizations that mitigate and alleviate the impact of disasters” and counts many well-known national aid organizations among its members. FEMA also posted a link to a list of the organization’s members in Texas.
Federal agencies urge donors to follow these tips:
- Donate to charities you know and trust.
- Designate the disaster to ensure your funds go toward disaster relief.
- Never click on links or open attachments in unsolicited email.
- Don't assume that requests for donations posted on social media are legitimate. Research the organization.
- Verify the authenticity of any email solicitation by contacting the organization directly through a trusted contact number.
- Beware of organizations with copycat names similar to but not exactly the same as those of reputable charities.
- Avoid cash donations if possible. Pay by 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. Most legitimate charity websites end in .org rather than .com.
- Make contributions directly, rather than relying on others to make a contribution on your behalf.
If the generosity of Americans after past disasters is any indication, millions of aid dollars will be donated in the coming weeks and months to areas affected by Harvey’s and Irma’s damaging storms and flooding. Federal agencies want to make sure those contributions end up where donors intend — and not in the hands of criminals.
Perrye Turner, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Houston Division, emphasized the importance of heeding these warnings: “As we all work to rebuild the Houston/Gulf Coast region and look for ways to help, it's important to perform due diligence before giving contributions to anyone soliciting donations or individuals offering to provide assistance to those affected by Harvey, whether the solicitations are in person, via email, or by telephone,” Turner said in a statement. “The FBI is dedicated to investigating and preventing this type of fraud, especially when it involves preying on individuals during times of great need.”
National Center for Disaster Fraud
Phone: (866) 720-5721