In urgent times, avoiding online charity scams

After the devastating earthquake in Haiti on Tuesday, many have flocked to the Web to find outlets for donation. But what's reputable and what isn't?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
Haiti after earthquake
Destruction on a Haitian hillside, following Tuesday's earthquake. Matthew Marek/American Red Cross

The harrowing images of victims of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in the impoverished island nation of Haiti on Tuesday have left many wondering how they can most effectively contribute money to help. Unfortunately, with any urgent call for donations often comes a rash of scams that can pilfer cash or result in identity theft.

"Whenever there is a major natural disaster, be it home or abroad, there are two things you can count on," Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance president Art Taylor said in a release on the organization's Web site. "The first is the generosity of Americans to donate time and money to help victims, and the second is the appearance of poorly run and in some cases fraudulent charities." The FBI has also put out a release warning Internet users of scams.

Map and flag of Haiti.
Map and flag of Haiti. U.S. State Department

"After Hurricane Katrina, it was reported that there were some 4,000 bogus Web sites (for donation), and in that disaster we knew in advance that it was coming, so some of those Web sites even popped up before the hurricane hit, but you're certainly seeing the same effect today," said Sandra Miniutti, director of marketing for Charity Navigator, an independent nonprofit Web site dedicated to evaluating the quality of nonprofits and disseminating information about the best ways to donate, in an interview with CNET. Charity Navigator has amassed its own list of recommended nonprofits for Haiti, ranging from Doctors Without Borders to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

But the days of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 already seem like an eon ago, technologically speaking. The charity world has turned many of its operations to new media, so there's a host of new platforms for donations--PayPal, text messages, Facebook applications--that can make a scammer more difficult to spot, and social media's lightning-fast viral channels can make a scheme spread even more quickly.

The text message donations are a particularly gray area in the wake of the Haiti earthquake simply because many people have never seen that format before: Both the American Red Cross and singer Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti project have encouraged donors to text a keyword to a specific number, which will automatically donate $5 or $10 to earthquake relief and bill it to the user's cell phone. Both of those are legitimate campaigns, but some are still wary.

"Text messaging donations have been sort of batted around as a concept for the past few years," Miniutti said. "They gained a little bit in popularity in the last two years with the 'Red Kettle' campaigns with the Salvation Army around Christmas time, in part because new tax laws required that you have a kind of receipt with tax deductions, so if you're just dropping cash in the bucket you get no receipt."

Trusting known entities
Perhaps the easiest way to avoid a scam, charity experts say, is name recognition. Some of the most prominent destinations for Haitian earthquake relief are extremely large and well-known. Plus, in a major disaster like this one, a seasoned and well-funded charity will be able to make the biggest difference.

If you're hunting for donation destinations on Twitter, it can help to check and see if an organization's Twitter account has been "verified" through a background check on behalf of the microblogging company. A "verified" badge means the Twitter account has been confirmed to belong to the organization that it claims to, but on the other hand, the verification process is not mandatory for charities on Twitter and many nonprofits, particularly small ones, will not necessarily have the logo on their profile pages.

Let's say you have a favorite nonprofit, but it's not directly donating to the relief effort in question; check on its Web site or blog, because it may provide some direction with regard to where they recommend donations be sent. Twitter favorite Charity Water, a nonprofit that builds wells in areas without access to clean water and currently has 14 projects in Haiti, reminded its loyal following on Wednesday that it's not a relief fund and suggested in a blog post that people interested in helping the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake donate to several of its partner organizations instead.

You can also look to see what media outlets or other companies recommend. The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR News, and CBS (which publishes CNET) all have compiled lists of reputable charities to donate to. Causes, the biggest name in spreading charity buzz through social media outlets like Facebook, has posted a blog entry in which it recommends donating to Oxfam or World Vision.

Miniutti suggests that despite the trendiness of social media, it really may be best to just go to the Unicef or Red Cross Web site and make a standard donation, even if it doesn't automatically send a tweet or broadcast the donation on your Facebook profile. "With all the social media--Facebook, Twitter, all these types of giving online--charities aren't really seeing a ton of revenue flowing through them just yet," Miniutti said. "At the end of the day, probably, the best bet is to go to the charity's Web site or to go to a site like Network for Good."

Finally, she said, there's something that seems all too obvious: If you get an e-mail from someone claiming to be a disaster victim in need, that should raise a red flag.

"Another thing we've seen after Hurricane Katrina and some other disasters is that people start getting e-mails and the e-mail looks as if it's from a victim," Miniutti explained. "It sounds kind of basic, but I think people are just so moved when they see these photos on TV, and they want to give."