While Americans are opening their hearts and wallets to help victims of Hurricane Ian – which go toward providing food, shelter and care to those impacted by the devastating hurricane – fraudsters are playing on your emotions to swindle you.
In fact, the FBI’s Tampa office has tweeted a warning about “scammers trying to use a natural disaster like Hurricane Ian to steal your money, your personal information, or both.”
In some cases, Florida residents are approached by door-to-door solicitations by phony charities or property insurance scams, while others across the country are receiving cold calls, texts, emails or messages over social media asking donors to dig deep for Hurricane Ian victims.
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Before you put a hand in your pocket, however, the bureau says it’s critical to do your due diligence to make sure it’s a legitimate charity – or the person approaching you is really part of the legitimate charity.
Warning signs of charity scams
While fraudsters target victims all year round, they often tie it to something timely for maximum impact, whether it’s phishing attempts during tax time, romance scams around Valentine’s Day, pandemic-related schemes, wars (as we saw with Ukraine aid-related scams this past spring), or following natural disasters.
To avoid falling victim to a scam, the FBI has listed several tips to adhere to, and red flags to spot, as well as some advice from the Federal Trade Commission).
The following are the key takeaways, along with some additional advice to prevent getting duped:
►Know that charity fraud scams may appear in several forms. Be sure to gently remind your relatives – including seniors you’re close with, as they’re an often-targeted group – not to give unless they do their homework. Criminals will call, send phony texts and emails, message you privately on Facebook and other social platforms, or pretend to be part of a crowdfunding campaign. They can also go door-to-door with a clipboard and a smile.
►A warning sign is pressure to give immediately. A legitimate charity will welcome your generous donation whenever you choose to make it.
►The FBI warns unethical contractors and other scammers may commit insurance fraud following a natural disaster or another emergency, essentially re-victimizing people whose homes or businesses have been damaged. If you need any post-disaster repairs, do your research before hiring any contractor.
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►Only give to established charities or groups whose work you know and trust. If it’s an unfamiliar organization yet you still want to give, go to their website and ask to see financial information. The FTC also recommends searching for a charity’s name with terms such as “complaints” and “scam.”
►Don’t think you can spot scams because of emails or websites with misspellings, awkward phrasing or bad grammar. Those used to be clues to fraud, but con artists are getting increasingly sophisticated.
►Be aware of organizations with copycat names or names similar to reputable organizations (“U.S. Red Cross” instead of “American Red Cross”). If the person is approaching you to make a donation on behalf of a reputable charity, ask for proof they actually work or volunteer for that particular organization.
►A common tactic is receiving a thank you for a prior donation you don’t recall making, and then asking if you can help again.
►Only donate using a credit card. If a charity or organization asks you to donate through cash, gift card, virtual/crypto currency or wire transfer, it’s probably a scam. This is because these payment methods are difficult to trace.
►You can report fraud to the FBI at tips.fbi.gov.
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Practice good ‘cyber hygiene’
A few additional suggestions to adopt (and share with others) to reduce the odds of someone stealing your money or personal information:
Just click ‘Delete’: Be suspicious of attachments in an email, text messages, or sent over social media. They may contain malware. Be equally cautious with links to a website. If you accidentally click and land on a page that is supposed to look like, say, Facebook – it may have a similar blue logo and familiar layout – you’ll see that the name of the website in the link at the top of the page is different. Delete these messages as fast as they arrive in your inbox. Hang up on robocallers and block the number.
Change your password often: Many of us are guilty of not regularly changing passwords or of using the same password for most or all online activity. A trusted password manager app can help. While it’s less convenient, also enable two-factor authentication. That way, you’ll need not only your password to log in to your inline activity, but also a one-time code sent to your mobile device to confirm that it’s really you.
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Enable automatic updates: This way, the operating systems on your desktop, laptop, smartphone and tablet are updated whenever software patches to vulnerabilities are released. On a related note, be sure to use software to protect against computer viruses and keep it up to date.
Limit your circle: Never accept an invitation on social media from someone you don’t recognize – or, worse, from a faceless “Facebook User.” Keep your account closed to Friends only, who you vet individually.
Distress schemes are on the rise: Watch out for “grandparent scams,” in which you get a message or a phone call that appears to be from a relative saying the loved one needs money because of a situation they got into. When in doubt, contact the person you know outside of social media.
Follow Marc on Twitter for his “Tech Tip of the Day” posts: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.