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‘Tis the season of giving, which means scammers may try to take advantage of your good will. A surprising fact about American donation habits is that everyday folks like yourself are the single largest driver of charitable donations in the United States. Giving USA’s Annual Report on Philanthropy found that individuals gave $286.65 billion in 2017, accounting for 70 percent of all donations in the country.

Last year, Giving Tuesday donations alone grew by 22 percent, with an average household donation of $111. With the seventh annual Giving Tuesday on November 27 fast approaching and technology that makes it increasingly easier to support your favorite causes, it’s more important than ever to keep your guard up before you click the “donate” button.

Charity Scams

Unsolicited donation requests are fairly normal during the holiday season —especially since non-profits depend on year-end giving for the success of their organizations—but look out for a few behaviors as red flags. Overly aggressive pitches including multiple phone calls and emails, or high-pressure tactics that require your immediate donation, should always be avoided. Be on high alert for “phishy” emails and links; make sure to check the sender’s email address and hover over links to reveal their true destination before clicking on them. Even if a website looks legitimate, it may be a spoofed. Check that the domain matches the company you intended to visit. This can be trickier than it sounds. For instance, stjudehospital.com may appear to be genuine, but an easy Google search of “St. Jude Hospital” reveals their actual site to be stjude.org.

If you’re donating to a charity you’ve never worked with before, do a little research before committing your funds. Charity Navigator is a particularly useful resource; just type in the organization’s name and check out their rating. If they are not listed on Charity Navigator, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and donate your hard-earned dollars elsewhere. Also, be sure to only enter sensitive or personal information into websites that have an SSL certificate; you’ll be able to tell if a page is secure if the link begins with “https”. (This is a great tip for shopping online this holiday season too.) Finally, before making any online donations, make sure you have a strong antivirus program installed that can detect phishing sites and that it’s up-to-date on all your devices.

If you are contacted by a charitable organization by telephone and want to make a donation, don’t give them your credit details over the phone. Have them mail you a donation form for you to evaluate and mail back. Remember: no legitimate charity will ask you to wire them money or pay them in gift cards. If you encounter a charity that is urging you to do so, cut all contact and block them on all platforms.

Bear in mind that not all charity scams are out for money, either—some are hoping to skim personal information. There is absolutely no reason to provide a charitable organization with information like your Social Security Number or driver’s license number—these are major red flags. Also, be especially cautious of requests to send an SMS code to donate via text message.

Social Media Scams

Social media is an easy and typically secure way to donate to legitimate charitable organizations, but scammers know how to use these platforms as well. Social media scams are on the rise, but a little bit of common sense goes a long way with donations on social channels. If you’re looking to donate to someone through a crowdfunding site, be sure the campaign fully answers these questions:

  • Can you verify if the organizer of the campaign has an existing relationship with the intended donation recipient?
  • Is there a plan for how the funds be used to aid the intended recipient?
  • Are verifiable friends and family of the intended recipient making donations and leaving supportive comments?
  • How will the intended recipient access the funds?

If you cannot easily find the answers to these questions, we recommend you avoid donating to that campaign.

Another pervasive social media scam is celebrity imposters who pretend to raise funds for charities or disaster relief. These imposters use the familiar faces of some of our favorite media personalities to gain our trust and access our wallets. If you have been solicited by a celebrity for donations, stop and take moment before you give. Make sure it’s their official social media page, which can be often verified on Twitter and Facebook by a small blue checkmark next to their name. You may also Google the celebrity’s name and “scam” to see if others have already reported a trap.

Source: @PatrickDempsey on Twitter

Attacks Targeting Seniors

While scams that target our aging loved ones are a problem year-round, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says scammers tend to ramp up their efforts during the holidays to take advantage of seasonal generosity. Most charity scams that target seniors are similar to the ones we all face, including phishing emails, phishing sites, and false charities. However, “Grandkid Scams” are a unique variety.

For this type of fraud, an older adult is contacted by a someone pretending to be a family member in desperate need of money or assistance, often impersonating a grandchild. Speak with the older adults in your life about the common signs of scams, like misspelled emails and requests for wire transfers, and teach them how to hover over a link to check its destination. Remind them to verify whether a family member is reaching out for money, and check in with them more often leading up to the holidays to catch any potential security issues early.

Stop Attacks Early

Vigilance is key in stopping a potential security breach in its tracks. If you believe you may have unwittingly sent money to a scam charity, reach out to the organization you used to send the money, such as your bank or credit card company. Tell them the transaction was fraudulent and ask them to cancel it, if possible. If you believe your personal information was exposed, you can freeze your credit to prevent any long-term damage. Also, if you think you may have encountered a charity scam of any type, be sure to report it to the FTC to help keep others safe.

Even if you don’t think you have suffered a breach, keep an eye on your credit score and monitor your banking and credit accounts closely this holiday season. Paying a little extra attention will help you act quickly if your information has been compromised, potentially saving you and your family major holiday heartache. For an added layer of protection, secure all of your family’s devices behind a trusted VPN, which will keep your private data encrypted and safe should anyone try to intercept information you send over WiFi.

Do you know of a common scam we missed? Have some advice you think we should have included? Let us know in the comments!

Tyler Moffitt

About the Author

Tyler Moffitt

Senior Threat Research Analyst

Tyler Moffitt is a Senior Threat Research Analyst who stays deeply immersed within the world of malware and antimalware. He is focused on improving the customer experience through his work directly with malware samples, creating antimalware intelligence, writing blogs, and testing in-house tools.

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