If you're like a lot of folks watching the coverage of the Southern California wildfires and want to help by donating money, watch out. Whenever a disaster strikes — manmade or natural — the con artists come out ready to prey upon people who have the best intentions.
FBI officials say when donating money be on the lookout for Internet-based scams from "disaster relief charities." After Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 terror attacks and other tragedies, hundreds of unscrupulous people and groups set up online schemes to scam millions of dollars from hardworking and honest people.
A popular trick involves sending unsolicited e-mails. If you receive an e-mail requesting money from someone you don't know or an organization you've never heard of (also called "spam") that's a good indication that the "charity" isn't legitimate. Reputable groups do not fund raise this way.
Here are a few examples of charity scams:
Nearly 50 people donated a total of $40,000 to fake charity, AirKatrina.com. Florida pilot Gary Kraser claimed that he flew rescue missions into the Gulf Coast. He told a dramatic tale of flying a 7-month-old baby to a hospital just in time for transplant surgery. Prosecutors say there was no baby and there were no flights. Kraser was later charged with fraud.
A judge in Missouri shut down 10 Web sites for illegally soliciting donations for Katrina relief efforts. The sites led back to one fraudulent site, InternetDonations.org.
Two Romanian nationals living in California staged phony Internet auctions to raise money for Katrina victims. They were charged with bilking people out of $150,OOO.
Charles Crist, Florida's attorney general, filed deceptive trade practices lawsuits against the founders of the following Web sites that sound good but are up to no good: KatrinaHelp.com, KatrinaDonations.com, KatrinaRelief.com and KatrinaReliefFund.com.
According to the FBI, here's what you should be on the lookout for:
If you receive an unsolicited e-mail (known as spam) that's a good indication that the group isn't legitimate. (By the way, I receive these e-mails all the time from some guy in Africa who claims an investor took his money and that he needs to borrow my money to get his back. Oh, I'll get my "investment" back and I'll share in his millions. Yeah, right.) These people are con artists and should never be trusted.
This leads me to the next dead giveaway: Someone you don't know may e-mail you with a tragic story and request money — like the Katrina pilot. Someone may represent himself as an official who works with a charity that needs money. Both are highly suspicious. If you've never heard of the charity or if the name sounds similar to a well-known charity, watch out.
To make sure that your money goes to the right place, do not make contributions to people or groups that claim that your donation will be forwarded to a charity.
Try to verify the legitimacy of a group by conducting Internet searches. There are many Web sites now that provide information detailing what portion of a group's money actually goes to the cause as opposed to overhead or other expenses. Use these Web sites to research groups if you are unfamiliar with the charity.
Never provide personal or financial information to anyone who requests a contribution. This could lead to identity theft.
To report concerns about possible fraudulent activity, contact the FBI at 1-800-Call-FBI or your state's attorney general.
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