Monday, March 14, 2011

Avoiding disaster relief scams

In the aftermath of the massive earthquake that struck northeastern Japan at 2:46 p.m. local time on March 11, 2011, and its subsequent tsunami, several oil refineries and industrial complexes caught fire, including facilities in the Port of Sendai and a petrochemical facility in Shiogama, where a large explosion has been reported.

This pair of images, acquired on March 12, 2011, by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument aboard NASA’s Terra spacecraft, shows a large smoke plume that appears to be associated either with the Shiogama incident or the Sendai port fires. The presence of clouds makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact origin. The data were obtained at a local time of about 10:30 a.m. (source)

In the few days since the disaster in Japan, fraudsters have come out in force, trying to gain your dollars. From Star Tribune:

...evidence that fraudsters are seeking to profit from the tragedy is the proliferation of websites purporting to represent charities.

Roughly 350 Internet addresses related to Japan were registered in a 24-hour period from Sunday to Monday, according to Internet security expert John Bambenek. The names reference Japan and such terms as "earthquake relief," "aid" and "help." Many ask for money.

"Some are probably legitimate," said Bambenek, who works for the Bethesda, Md.-based Internet Storm Center, which tracks viruses and other security problems. "But nobody can set up a charity that fast." (Much more here.)

Of course, as we see the horrific images out of Japan, we all want to open our hearts and our wallets to do something. With so many charities asking for your hard-earned dollars, it can be almost impossible to know which charity to support. How can you be sure that the money you give WILL go to the people on the ground in Japan, and not into other ongoing projects, for example. Both the FBI and the Better Business Bureau have some helpful tips, which are worth checking, BEFORE you send your money. From the BBB:

“When we learn of these disasters our natural instinct is to reach out to charities and relief efforts that can help; however, please take a moment to be sure you are connecting with those that actually can,” said Randall Hoth, Wisconsin BBB president/CEO. “Not only do people need to be concerned about avoiding fraud, they also need to make sure their money goes to those that are equipped and experienced to handle the unique challenges of providing assistance.”

Although the BBB has no reports yet of scams related to the Japanese tsunami, its experience with past natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, prompts the BBB to issue a “pre-emptive strike” against donation scams. BBB offers the following seven tips to help Americans decide where to direct donations:

Rely on expert opinion when it comes to evaluating a charity.

Be cautious when relying on third-party recommendations such as bloggers or other Web sites, as they might not have fully researched the listed relief organizations. The public can go to to research charities and relief organizations to verify that they are accredited by the BBB and meet the 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.

Be cautious when giving online.

Be cautious about online giving, especially in response to spam messages and emails that claim to link to a relief organization. In response to the tsunami disaster in 2004, there were concerns raised about many Web sites and new organizations that were created overnight allegedly to help victims.

Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the disaster impact areas.

Unless the charity already has staff in the affected areas, it may be difficult to get new aid workers to quickly provide assistance. See if the charity’s website clearly describes what they can do to address immediate needs.

Find out if the charity is providing direct aid or raising money for other groups.

Some charities may be raising money to pass along to relief organizations. If so, you may want to consider “avoiding the middleman” and giving directly to charities that have a presence in the region. Or, at a minimum, check out the ultimate recipients of these donations to ensure the organizations are equipped to effectively provide aid.

Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations will assist relief victims.

Despite what an organization might claim, charities have fund raising and administrative costs. Even a credit card donation will involve, at a minimum, a processing fee. If a charity claims that 100 percent of collected funds will be assisting earthquake victims, the truth is that the organization is still probably incurring fund raising and administrative expenses. They may use some of their other funds to pay this, but the expenses will still be incurred.

Gifts of clothing, food or other in-kind donations.

In-kind drives for food and clothing, while well intentioned, may not be the best or quickest way to help those in need. Even if the organization has the staff and infrastructure to be able to properly distribute such aid, a money donation may be far more helpful to a charity that is responding to a crisis situation.

Donate directly to the relief charity you have chosen.

You may be tempted to make a donation by texting. Charities can raise significant sums this way, but be aware that it might take a long while for the money to reach the nonprofit if it is given through mobile texting. Text donations also typically have limitations on the amount you can give. To put your disaster relief gift to work faster, go directly to the charity’s website to make your donation, or call them with your credit card number.

You can start your search of BBB Accredited Charities here:


The FBI has many resources and tips:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reminds the public to use caution when making donations in the aftermath of natural disasters. Unfortunately, criminals can exploit these tragedies for their own gain by sending fraudulent e-mails and creating phony websites designed to solicit contributions.

The FBI and the National Center for Disaster Fraud have an existing tip line to receive information from the public about suspected fraud associated with the earthquake and tsunami that affected Japan. Tips should be reported to the National Center for Disaster Fraud, (866) 720-5721. The line is staffed by a live operator 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Additionally, e-mails can be sent to, and information can be faxed to (225) 334-4707.


The FBI continues to remind the public to perform due diligence before giving contributions to anyone soliciting donations or individuals offering to provide assistance to the people of Japan. Solicitations can originate from e-mails, websites, door-to-door collections, flyers, mailings, telephone calls, and other similar methods.

Before making a donation of any kind, consumers should adhere to certain guidelines, including:

  • Do not respond to any unsolicited (spam) incoming e-mails, including clicking links contained within those messages because they may contain computer viruses.
  • Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as members of charitable organizations or officials asking for donations via e-mail or social networking sites.
  • Beware of organizations with copy-cat names similar to but not exactly the same as those of reputable charities.
  • Rather than follow a purported link to a website, verify the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations by utilizing various Internet-based resources that may assist in confirming the group’s existence and its nonprofit status.
  • Be cautious of e-mails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files because the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders.
  • To ensure contributions are received and used for intended purposes, make contributions directly to known organizations rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf.
  • Do not be pressured into making contributions; reputable charities do not use such tactics.
  • Be aware of whom you are dealing with when providing your personal and financial information. Providing such information may compromise your identity and make you vulnerable to identity theft.
  • 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 charities websites end in .org rather than .com.

Consumers can also report suspicious e-mail solicitations or fraudulent websites to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center,

And they have much more here. Both the Better Business Bureau, and the FBI stress the need for any citizen to do his/her homework BEFORE donating:

Check out the organization at sites for the Better Business Bureau,; the Foundation Center,, a New York-based authority on philanthropy; or Charity Navigator, an independent nonprofit organization that evaluates charities based on effectiveness and financial stability.

As the tragedy continues to unfold in Japan, we can all be most effective if we donate to where we can be reasonably assured that our money will reach - and do the most good - for those suffering.

Pay attention.

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