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How to detect a charity scam

May 08, 2024 | 5 min read

In this article

  • Charity scams: Generosity attracts scammers who impersonate charities, exploiting donors emotionally.
  • Give wisely: Verify and research before you give to an organization. Ask crucial questions before giving.
  • Stay alert: Never share personal information, be cautious of letters and links, and assess emails/websites for signs of fraud.

Generosity brings joy and positive connections, but it also attracts scammers. While you aim to make a difference, fraudsters may exploit your goodwill by impersonating charities. Before you open your wallet to make a difference, you’ll want to make sure your money goes to a verifiable program — one that truly uses your dollars to benefit the cause. If you want to give money to those in need, read our following tips to learn more about what a charity scam is and avoid getting scammed.

How scammers scheme donors

Scammers will use any cause to play on emotions and trick people into giving their money away: disaster relief, social justice, medical research, community support, health care, animal rescue – the list goes on and on. No matter what you’re passionate about or where you care to help, the risk of getting scammed exists.

Here’s how scammers try to trick you:

  • Robocalls, text messages and telemarketing
  • Phishing attacks via email or SMS; fraudulent emails or texts include a link to a fake website or come from an email address or phone number that resembles a real charity you’d trust
  • Fake social media accounts, posts and direct messages
  • Mobile apps

So, how can you ensure that your donation will get into the right hands?

Actions you can take!

We’ve rounded up guidance and advice from a bevy of resources to help you catch red flags for fraud!

Ask if they’re a registered public 501(c)(3) organization.

Verifying that the nonprofit you'd like to donate to is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization is an important first step when making the decision to donate. You can verify an organization at or by simply asking for their EIN (be wary if they can't or won't provide one).

Research charities using online tools.

It’s critical to do your research before choosing a new charity, especially if it’s one that you’re not expressly familiar with. In addition to the Charity Navigator site mentioned earlier, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends the following sites to help vet a charity you’re considering supporting:, and (the BBB Wise Giving Alliance).1 

These donor-advocate sites monitor and evaluate organizations on various criteria to ensure they’re in good standing and trustworthy. Get the data you need to make informed decisions, such as if the organization is effective, efficient, transparent and conducts ethical practices. Whether you want to research a specific charity or search for charities from which to choose, these sites help ensure your money is making a meaningful difference, and not getting into the wrong hands.

Know what questions to ask.

One way to protect yourself from a sham charity is preparedness. The FTC encourages donors to ask these questions upfront:2

What is the exact name, web address and mailing address of the charity?

  • Look up this information to verify.

How much of my donation goes directly to the fundraiser? What else do proceeds get spent on, such as overhead expenses?

  • Make sure your money is going where you want it! How much of your donation should go to the charity’s mission? To meet the Better Business Bureau’s Standards for Charity Accountability, 65% of the organization’s proceeds need to be directly used for its program activities.3

Is my donation tax-deductible?

Are you registered with my state’s charity regulator?

Don’t be afraid to do your due diligence by investigating the charity. Any legitimate organization will appreciate your inquiries and be happy to provide information. If they struggle to answer your questions, that’s your cue to ditch the donation.

Follow these common scam-prevention tips.

Never give out your financial and personal information (such as your Social Security Number or bank account number) to someone asking for a donation. While some scammers want to steal your donation money, others want to steal your identity.

Also, be suspicious of links in emails, social media messages and texts from organizations you’re not already connected to. If you’re interested in donating to the organization, don’t click on any links (or attachments). Instead, do your research, contact the charity directly and donate through the proper channel once you confirm their legitimacy.

Give emails, web addresses and websites a proper assessment, as well; look for clues signaling fraud like misspellings/grammar errors, a copycat website replicating the real site, a name closely resembling a reputable charity or a suspect collection process.

Be aware of these signs too!

  • Pressure to donate: The con artist may try to rush you by saying you’ve already pledged to donate or donated previously.
  • A thank-you letter for support you never gave: Scammers will use this letter as a trick to convince you that you’ve donated previously, pushing you to donate “again.”
  • A call saying you’ve won a prize in a charity sweepstakes, especially if you didn’t donate: Never provide your personal information or pay to receive fake winnings.

What else can you do to safeguard your money?

  • Keep a record or receipt of your donations.
  • Check your credit card account in case you were overcharged or signed up for a recurring donation without your knowledge.
  • Do a search for the charity on the Internet, and include keywords like “reviews,” “ratings,” “complaints,” “scams” or “fraud.”

Your greatest defense against con artists is learning about how charity scams work, what to watch out for and how you can do your part to stay safe. Don’t let the risk of getting scammed stop you from doing good, though! As long as you’re informed, you can circumvent charity scammers and support organizations that will make the most impact with your donation.


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