Fact Checked

IRS warns of Hurricane Florence charity scams

Flooded roadway with "flooded" signImage: Flooded roadway with "flooded" sign

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Natural disasters bring out the best in many people.

In the wake of Hurricane Florence, a municipality in an unaffected, distant state sent crews hundreds of miles to help restore power to impacted areas. Meanwhile, some volunteers stood in a long line to foster shelter dogs displaced by the storm.

And when a local woman braved the tail end of the hurricane to buy underwear for evacuees, the store manager gave her more than $1,200 worth of clothing — for free.

Unfortunately, natural disasters can bring out the worst in people, too. On Tuesday, the IRS issued a reminder: Scammers often pose as legitimate helpers in an attempt to take advantage of people who want to aid disaster victims.

What does this mean for you?

If the plight of millions affected by Florence moves you to donate, you need to be cautious. The IRS notes that fake charity schemes typically start with an unsolicited phone call, email, social media outreach or even an in-person contact.

Scammers may be after cash or personal information. They could set up fake websites, use names that are similar to legitimate charities you may be familiar with, or may even claim they’re working for the IRS to help storm victims file loss claims and get tax refunds.

Falling victim to a charity scam is a double insult. Not only do you lose money, but the victims you wanted to help will never see a dime of your donation.

What can you do?

Plenty! You can help thwart charity scammers by staying alert to some common signs that a solicitation is bogus.

The North Carolina Department of Justice (DOJ) says you shouldn’t respond to unsolicited emails or text messages asking for a donation. Even if a message looks legit, it may include links to websites that mimic a real charity in order to trick you into donating.

And, says the North Carolina DOJ, don’t let anyone pressure you into making a donation. Pushy telemarketers and aggressive tactics to get you to make an immediate donation could be signs of a charity scam.

The Federal Trade Commission also offers pointers on spotting a charity scam:

  • A lack of detail about the organization’s identity, mission costs and how your donation will be used.
  • Refusal or inability to provide proof that your donation will be tax deductible.
  • A name that sounds similar to a recognizable, reputable organization.
  • A promise you’ll win a sweepstakes in exchange for your donation. (That kind of transaction isn’t just a scam, it’s also illegal.)
  • Requests (or demands) for payment by cash, gift card or money wire.

More tips to avoid scammers

Some caution and research can help you steer clear of charity scams, authorities advise.

  • Get detailed information about the organization, including its name, physical and mailing addresses and telephone number.
  • Research charities online and use terms like “best charity” or “highly rated charity” in your search.
  • Search for the charity’s name plus trigger terms such as “complaint,” “review,” “rating” or “scam.”
  • Never donate cash or gift cards, or make a wire transfer. Instead, use methods that offer you some security, such as credit cards (you can dispute false charges) or check. But before you make a donation of any kind, thoroughly research the organization.
  • Keep a record of all your donations. And check your credit card statement after making a donation to ensure the amount the organization charged you matches the amount you agreed to donate.

Bottom line

If you want to help, plenty of legitimate organizations are accepting donations and aiding victims of Hurricane Florence.

The state of North Carolina, which was severely affected by Hurricane Florence, requires all charities that solicit donations to be registered with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s Charitable Solicitation Licensing Division. The division provides a searchable online registry so you can check to see if a charity is actually licensed to solicit in the state.

You can also find charities and check up on them through these organizations:

Finally, the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office recommends giving to established and experienced charities, such as:

About the author: Evelyn Pimplaskar is an assigning editor with Credit Karma, covering checking, savings, personal finance and taxes. With nearly 30 years of experience in media, marketing, public relations and journalism, Evelyn’s wri… Read more.