By Ralph Johnson, Chief Information Security and Privacy Officer
The holiday season is a great time to make charitable gifts to support the causes you care about, and charities often run end-of-year fundraising campaigns. However, criminals take advantage of this fact and run scams and frauds of their own to fool consumers into giving them money instead. Below are some common scams and frauds used by cybercriminals and some tips on how to avoid them. If you can spot these seasonal tricks, you are more likely to ensure your donation goes where you intend it to go.
Fake charity websites
One of the most convincing ways for cybercriminals to exploit charitable giving is by creating convincing charity websites. These websites are in fact fraudulent and may copy an existing charity’s site or use the charity’s name and branding. While few techniques are fool proof for detecting fake or malicious websites, try to follow these recommendations:
- Whenever possible, browse directly to the charity by entering the charity’s URL directly into your browser’s address bar.
- If you are not sure of the charity’s URL, an Internet search can help, but instead of automatically clicking on the first link, look at the top few links. If the top link is what you want, great, but if you see several very similar links this could indicate one of them is a potentially fraudulent website.
- Carefully study the website’s URL for typos, such as two “v” characters in place of a “w” or an “i” instead of an “l.” If you’re not sure about a potential typo, try changing to all capitals or a different font.
- Fraudulent charity websites frequently use domain names and email addresses that sound legitimate. You can do a little research into what the correct domain name and email address should be by looking into the organization using resources recommended by the Federal Trade Commission in their charity guide, or through resources like GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and Charity Watch.
Social media donation pleas
Scammers commonly impersonate staff from major charities via social media channels, as this makes it easier for them to impersonate someone else. Avoid making donations through social media and never send your personal or payment information in a social media message. Instead, consider heading directly to a charity’s established website.
In addition to traditional charity scams at this time of year, social media is also susceptible to the spread of a variety of pyramid schemes and other charity scams. Pyramid schemes involve the simple but unsustainable premise of receiving more than you give. One of the most common schemes on social media right now involves 7 bottles of wine. You receive the message indicating that to participate you should send one bottle of wine to the person who tagged you and post the message, tagging 6 other people who will each send you a bottle. Another scheme purports to be from a sick child who wants something – holiday cards for example and asks you to send a card and share the post with all your friends so that they will send a card, too. If you come across one of these viral posts, let it stop with you! Don’t share it, repost it, or send anything along, and do take a moment to educate your friends!
When donating to a charity, make sure that the charity is a registered charity under U.S. or international tax law. U.S. 501 charities have to make certain information public and you can look the charity and its information up under any of the several charity tracking websites.