Person writing a check to charity

Scammers count on the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, as well as associated factors like gift shopping and a greater sense of charity, to rip off as many people as they can.

The website www.scambusters.org focuses on this topic every year and offers a rundown of common traps that trip up most consumers. Topping one of its latest lists is the bogus websites offering the hottest gifts of the year at “amazingly low” prices. Shoppers who unknowingly place orders never receive the goods and likely have handed their credit card information over to a criminal.

Thieves look for unsecured purses and wallets. Convincing con artists stand near store fronts – dressed in appropriate holiday garb, of course – to hit up weary shoppers for contributions. Scammers also call us at home with cloned numbers that trick us into thinking they’re legit. They give frightening pitches about stolen credit card information or hacked bank accounts hoping the owner will spill access, password and pin information.

Nobody can make themselves immune from the holiday scam, but everyone can make it much harder for thieves to achieve their objective, promises the Federal Trade Commission. The No. 1 safeguard is to always be suspicious of anyone asking for money or personal information out of the blue. Understand that reputable banks or credit agencies would never ask account holders to provide access information over the phone. Also live by the motto, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

With donation scams being the most prevalent this time of year, the FTC recommends the following precautions:

  • Go with what you know. Activities like the Combined Federal Campaign have existed for years and have a reputation for giving contributors choices of which agencies they wish to support, including many in their own community. (Editor’s note: the annual CFC fundraising campaign is underway. Visit www.fortleetraveller.com and type “CFC” in search area.)
  • Don’t click on random links to charities in websites. Get the name of the organization and proceed to the next tip.
  • Do online research before you give. While searching for causes you care about – such as “hurricane relief” or “homeless kids” – include phrases like “best charity” or “highly rated charity.” When you consider giving to a specific charity, search its name plus “complaint,” “review,” “rating,” or “scam. 

Helpful charity research websites include the Better Business Bureau’s www.give.org and the consumer education websites www.charitynavigator.org and www.guidestar.org.

The FTC also cautions consumers to be careful about their payment method. Consider the following tips:

  • If someone asks for donations in cash, by gift card or by wiring money, don’t do it. Scammers bank on these impossible-to-trace payment methods. Credit card or check payments can be tracked, and many banks extend fraud protection to account holders.
  • It’s a good practice to keep a record of all donations. Also review account statements closely to make sure you’re only charged the agreed-to amount and it didn’t become an unauthorized recurring donation.

The FTC also encourages consumers to keep the following scammers’ tricks in mind:

  • Don’t let anyone rush you into making a donation. That’s something scammers do.
  • Some scammers try to trick you into paying them by thanking you for a donation that you never made.
  • Scammers can change caller ID to make a call look like it’s from a local area code.
  • Some scammers use names that sound a lot like the names of real charities. This is one reason it pays to do some research before giving.
  • Scammers make lots of vague and sentimental claims but give no specifics about how your donation will be used.
  • Bogus organizations may claim that your donation is tax-deductible when it is not.
  • Guaranteeing sweepstakes winnings in exchange for a donation is not only a scam, it’s illegal.

If consumers see any red flags, or if they’re not sure about how the individual/organization will use their donation, give to a different charity. There are many worthy organizations who will use your contribution wisely.

Report scams to www.FTC.gov/complaint.  Find your state charity regulator at nasconet.org and report to them, as well. Share any information available like the name of the organization or fundraiser, phone number and what the solicitor said.

The final tip is don’t let emotions get the best of you. Most scammers are adept at catching individuals off-guard and keeping them there until they get what they want. Stop, think, ask questions, and if it doesn’t feel right, walk away figuratively or literally.