Avoiding Charity Scams: Questions to Ask & Ways to Give
Every year, we hear more and more stories about different scams and fraudulent practices that take advantage of the generosity of Americans, especially in times of dire need. We all can recall that phone message from a fundraiser asking us to give money to a charity whose name sounds familiar, but we’re not quite sure what the mission is, or the impact of the organization, or if the organization effectively uses its donations, or… the list goes on.
It’s easy to get upset about charity scams. “How dare they??” we might ask ourselves. But being prepared to ask tough questions of the charities asking for money is the first step to take to protect yourself from being taken advantage of when a potential scammer or fake charity asks you to donate.
First things first: Are they a registered public 501(c)(3) organization?
Here at Charity Navigator, we always stress this question. Ask the charity what their EIN is. If they don’t have one -- don’t donate. Once they give you their EIN, you can find them on the Charity Navigator site. If you can’t -- don’t donate. (Of course, there are organizations who are brand new who haven't yet filed their first Form 990, so ask if they're a newly opened organization, which would explain why they're not on the Charity Navigator site).
Second: What’s in a name?*
Taxpayers should be particularly wary of charities with names similar to nationally known organizations. Legitimate charities will provide their Employer Identification Number (EIN), if requested, which can be used to verify their legitimacy. Taxpayers can find legitimate and qualified charities with the Tax Exempt Organization Search (TEOS) tool on IRS.gov. Taxpayers can also use the tool to determine if the donations they make to an organization are tax- deductible charitable contributions.
Here are some things to know about the TEOS tool:
It provides information about an organization’s federal tax status and filings.
It’s mobile device friendly.
Donors can use it to confirm that an organization is tax-exempt and eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions.
Users can find out if an organization had its tax-exempt status revoked.
Organizations are listed under the legal name or a “doing business as” name on file with the IRS.
The search results are sortable by name, Employee Identification Number, state, and country.
Users may also download entire lists of organizations eligible to receive deductible contributions, auto-revoked organizations and e-Postcard filers.
Taxpayers can also use the Interactive Tax Assistant, Can I Deduct my Charitable Contributions? to help determine if a charitable contribution is deductible.
Third: What are the organization’s mission, goals, and history of success?
If a charity struggles to answer these questions, consider giving elsewhere. You want your donation to go far to support a cause you care about. Organizations should take the time to answer your questions -- your donation should be valuable to them, just like the time they’re spending building a relationship with you. If the fundraiser who contacts you refuses to answer these questions, leads you around in a circle, or tries to pass off these questions as not important, your donation will be better served elsewhere.
Fourth: Google it!
Seek out the charity’s website to validate their work. After storms and disasters of all kinds and capacities, individuals are likely to set up fake websites claiming to be a charity. Make sure you can find the nonprofit’s EIN somewhere on their website or donation page to know that the money is going to the right place. Most nonprofits also have .org website rather than .com’s.
Fifth: Use Charity Navigator
If you want to make sure your donation is going to a real charity and to one that uses your donation well, use Charity Navigator’s Giving Basket. Our Giving Basket is a secure, easy, and convenient way to give to the causes you care about that only allows donations to legitimate charities, making sure you don’t donate to a fraudulent appeal.