Here Come the Holidays … and the Con Artists

One man, sitting indoors surounded by computers, hacking crime is in motion, rear view.

When Beth was helping her elderly mother with paperwork during a Thanksgiving visit, she noticed a number of credit card charges to unfamiliar charitable organizations. A little research showed that not a single one of those “charities” were highly rated, and several were out-and-out frauds. “Mom, don’t send these people money!” said Beth. “But I want to help,” said Mom. “It makes me feel good, and besides, it’s my money.”

Many of us are inspired to make charitable contributions during the holiday season. But, sad to say, con artists posing as charities are ready to take advantage of our generosity. Every year, these crooks defraud well-meaning donors of many millions of dollars, taking our money for their own use and depriving legitimate charitable groups of the funds that could do so much good.

The Assisting Hands Hand in Hand newsletter has reported on phony charities before. Here are some of the most common charity scams going around in 2018:

Disaster fraud. This year, Americans are donating generously to the victims of events such as Hurricane Florence, the California wildfires and Typhoon Mangkhut. But the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI are warning consumers that fake charities are springing up to siphon off these donations by creating fake relief organizations and websites impersonating legitimate ones.

Veterans charities. Who deserves our help more than wounded or homeless veterans? Seniors have a special place in their hearts for those who served. But the AARP recently reported on an epidemic of fake veterans charities, who send out mail solicitations or create TV ads exploiting veterans in need. They also target veterans themselves. See the AARP Operation Protect Veterans site to learn more.

Copycat names. The FBI warns that many scammers create fake companies whose names are similar to those of legitimate charities—say, American Society for Cancer to mimic the American Cancer Society, or the American Children’s Wishes Foundation to trick people who might donate to the legitimate Make-A-Wish Foundation. To learn more, check out these tips from Consumer Reports.

Phishing. Sometimes scammers aren’t really after a donation; they want you to share your bank account number, credit card information or other personal data so they can access your money and steal your identity. Photos, links and attachments in emails may contain malware that can steal your data, as well.

Talking to seniors about charity fraud

Having the conversation with an older loved who is in danger of being defrauded can be tricky. Your loved one might resent your intrusion, feeling that you’re questioning their judgment and competence. They may be embarrassed that they’ve been defrauded. They may feel an emotional attachment to a scammer who has “groomed” them to make more donations, flattering them with false tales of where their money is going.

So if your loved one is defensive, the best strategy is to make it a collaborative, educational moment rather than a stern lecture. Explain that people of every age should educate themselves about fake charities—and report them. Many seniors have a well-developed sense of justice. Said one daughter, “Dad didn’t want to talk about the guy that ripped him off, but when I helped him report the organization to the Better Business Bureau, he felt better and talked about it plenty—to all his friends!”

Four ways to avoid charity fraud

Plan your charitable giving. Impulse donations are most likely to end up in the pocket of a crook. Set up a personal giving plan and stick to it. If you are approached by a solicitor, request that they leave the information for you to examine. Make it a rule never to respond to unsolicited mail, email, phone calls, door-to-door solicitors or social media requests.

Do some background checking before you decide how to donate your hard-earned money. Check out a charity through the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance (www.give.org), Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) and Charity Watch (www.charitywatch.org). For local charities, check your state attorney general's website. Visit the National Association of Attorneys General (www.naag.org) to find a link to your state’s office.

With your loved one, visit the above sites to read some stories about the way con artists operate. Check out the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network (www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud) to learn more about fraud that targets elders. Remind your loved one that glossy brochures and TV commercials that tug at the heartstrings don't mean a charity is legitimate. And phone callers may not be who they say they are. Phony charities use paid employees—the classic "boiler room" workers—who will say anything to get your money. They work from a script designed to pressure and guilt people into making a donation.

Don’t make cash donations. Pay by debit or 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—and certainly not with gift cards, a big fraud red flag.

Doing something for others is central to the holiday season for most of us. How much warmer the holidays will feel when we know we’ve really helped a person in need, rather than supporting a crook’s lavish lifestyle!

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2018.