Newtown charity scams show no event too tragic for fraudsters – National Consumers League

By John Breyault, NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud

It seems almost unimaginable that someone would try to take advantage of the Newtown school shooting to defraud consumers. Unfortunately, in this tragedy as with others, scam artists are all too willing to stoop to a new low.  According to a report from Jeff Rossen and Avni Patel of NBC’s “Today” show, a scam artist in the Bronx posed as the aunt of Newtown victim Noah Pozner in a ploy to collect donations for a fictitious charity fund. While the scammer in this case was later arrested, the high-profile of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy is sure to generate other charity scams.

Unfortunately, such scams have become a predictable part of most major natural disasters or other tragedies. They cropped up in 2004 after the Indonesian tsunami, in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, in 2010 after the Haiti earthquake, and earlier this year after the Aurora theater shooting, to name but a few. In each case, unscrupulous con artists took advantage of the natural inclination of good Samaritans to help others in times of need. Charity scammers are adept at setting up fake Web sites, sending out telephone solicitations, and using email and direct mail to try and create a sense of trust with their victims. Rarely does any money donated to these outfits make its way to the intended charitable causes.

Charity scams are doubly damaging, since they not only cost victims money, but they also deprive legitimate charities of badly needed contributions. Consumers who are approached to donate money to a charity should be sure to check out the charity ahead of time before giving. Web sites like Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance are good places to start when researching a charitable organization.

Unfortunately, these aren’t foolproof ways to protect oneself from charity scams. Scammers often pose as legitimate charities such as the Red Cross or UNICEF, even going so far as to set up Web sites or Facebook pages that look like the real organization’s sites. They may include the logos of respected organizations in emails or other solicitations to make themselves seem more legitimate. If you receive a solicitation to support a particular charitable organization, even one you may have heard of before, it’s usually a good idea to contact the charity directly (either via the Web or a listed telephone number for the group) and make your donation that way.

A good rule of thumb to remember is that major news events, especially ones with victims that tug at our heartstrings, are sure to bring out scammers. While it’s right to want to support others in their time of need, make sure and donate smartly to avoid becoming a victim of a charity scam. For more information on spotting and avoiding charity scams, click here.