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Beware of charity scams around Orlando tragedy

Posted: 6:53 PM, Jun 14, 2016
Updated: 2016-06-14 18:53:03-04

INDIANAPOLIS -- In the wake of the Orlando shooting tragedy, requests for donations are pouring in on Facebook, GoFundMe and other sites.

Call 6 Investigates did some checking to find out how you can tell if you’re giving your money to a legitimate organization or to a scam artist.

“People have used tragedies as an appeal for scam artists,” said Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller. “We see it all the time. We saw it with 9/11 and we saw it with the state fair stage collapse.”

Before you give, do your research and check to see if the fundraiser is backed by a legitimate nonprofit or 501(c)3.

“It’s hard to get guarantees when all you see is something on a website,” said Zoeller.  “So we always ask people to use caution.”

Equality Florida, the state’s LGBT civil rights organization, created a GoFundMe page to collect cash support for the victims at the Pulse night club.

They’ve raised more than $3.5 million, a crowdfunding record, and GoFundMe waived its normal transaction fee and donated $100,000 to the fund.

Call 6 Investigates checked with Charity Navigator. The watch dog ranks Equality Florida three out of four stars. But not every pop-up fundraiser is backed by a legitimate nonprofit.

A number of fundraisers materialized after the Sandy Hook massacre. Just last month a Tennessee man pleaded guilty to stealing $28,000 from the charity he created to benefit the people of Newtown.

Bobby Whithorne, spokesperson for GoFundMe said they are currently monitoring more than 150 GoFundMe sites claiming to raise money for Orlando shooting victims.

“We are trying to vet all of them to insure they are communicating clearly to the donors how the funds will be used,” said Whithorne.

GoFundMe will not release the funds until they can vet and verify the recipient, and establish a direct personal connection.

“We have a team of specialists working around the clock to monitor the campaigns to make sure the funds are provided to those in need,” said Whithorne.

Charity Navigator has issued the following tips in light of the Orlando nightclub shooting:

  • Remember, a victim isn't going to know your personal email address to send you a direct appeal for help. This happens after every tragedy and sadly, some people, giving from their heart, don’t stop to think before they click on an email and give their personal financial information.
  • Think twice about donating to a victim on a crowdfunding site. While these sites provide instant gratification to donors who want to respond quickly, there is little to no vetting happening on these giving platforms, making them a very  risky way to donate . The only exception is if you personally know the person behind the appeal for support. 
  • Be careful about giving to brand new charities that spring into existence. Even well-meaning new organizations will not have the infrastructure and knowledge of the region to efficiently maximize your gift. There is also a risk that the  new group might in fact be a scam .
  • You may also want to consider  other ways to help , such as donating blood, signing up to get trained as a disaster volunteer, volunteering your time, or donating to a charity in your local community. 

See our other  Tips for Giving in Times of Crisis .

Tips from the Indiana Attorney General:

1. Determine if the charity is legitimate

  • Ask or look for written information on the organization or cause, including a contact name, address, telephone number and mission statement.
  • Check out the Internal Revenue Service’s  website  that maintains a list of organizations eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions.
  • Watch out for charities with similar sounding names. Some unscrupulous charities use names that are very similar to those of respected organizations to scam consumers.

2. Determine how your donation will be used

  • Watch out for vague appeals that don’t clarify how the funds will be used. Know exactly how and when your donation will be used.
  • Before donating, contact one of the organizations listed on the Attorney General’s  website  that collect financial information on charities so that you know the amount of money a charity spends on fundraising and administrative expenses compared to the amount they spend on actual programs and services.
  • Know whether you are donating to a charity or an advocacy group.

3. Watch out for phishing scams

  • Do not click on pop-up solicitations or reply to emails asking for donations. These are likely phishing scams.
  • Be suspicious if a caller or invoice thanks you for making a pledge that you didn't make. If you have any doubt about whether you made a pledge, check your records.

4. Exercise caution when donating online or to crowdfunding platforms

  • With crowdfunding projects, it is difficult to know whether the solicitations are for legitimate causes. If they are not, it may be very difficult for those who donated to get their money back.
  • Consider donating only to people you personally know or established charities.
  • If you do donate via crowdfunding, check that collected monies are received and administered by a third party, like a bank. This will help provide oversight to ensure that collected funds are used appropriately.
  • Check to see if the crowdfunding effort is backed by a registered 501(c)(3).

5. Never wire money or use a pre-paid debit card to make a donation

  • Always make contributions by credit card or check and payable to the charitable organization, not to the solicitor.

6. Know that you can cancel a pledge prior to making a contribution

  • Under Indiana law, a contributor has the right to cancel a pledge for monetary contributions at any time prior to making the contribution.