Online scams abound during times of heightened giving

Charities receive donations from millions of well-intentioned men, women and even children each year. While many charities are reputable and worthy of donations, donors should know that criminals masquerading as charities are out there as well. These criminals want to steal more than just money.

The Internet has made life easier in many ways, but it has also put people at greater risk of identity theft, especially during times of heightened giving, when many donors make charitable donations online. Donors must share sensitive personal information when making contributions online. Encryption software can safeguard donor information from potential criminals, but there are other ways crooks can have access to personal data. The following are a few ways for donors to protect themselves from online criminals.

* Ignore email solicitations. Email solicitations are rarely what they seem, and many charitable organizations do not solicit donations via email. So how to explain that inbox full of messages requesting charitable donations? Online scammers often operate under the banner of a genuinely reputable organization, using its logo, name and even including a link that appears to direct readers to the charity’s Web site, which has been set up to look exactly like the legitimate charity’s own site. However, that Web site may have a slightly different URL, and donors who are not careful may enter their personal information without ever realizing they just shared that information with a criminal posing as a charity.

Donors concerned about email solicitations should consult the charity referenced in the message — independently finding its contact information — to determine if the email was legitimate or if it was sent by a scammer. Never click on any links or download any attachments within the email. Attachments may contain spyware software that will invade a user’s computer without his or her knowledge, lifting any personal information it can find.

* Don’t fall prey to “victim” messages. Nearly everyone with an email account has received messages from someone claiming to be suffering from a disease or victimized by a natural disaster who only needs a few kindly donations from strangers to get his or her life back in order. Such stories may be gut-wrenching, but they are almost certainly the work of criminals playing on the compassion of good-hearted people. Men and women with debilitating diseases or those victimized by natural disasters do not have the resources to contact strangers via email and solicit their help. Delete such messages from your inbox or ignore their contents no matter how heartbreaking the stories may seem.

* Learn to recognize reputable Web sites. Many scammers posing as charities are fully capable of establishing convincing Web sites that appear as authentic as those of legitimate charitable organizations. However, there are a few telltale signs that prospective donors can look for to determine if a Web site is reputable or criminal. For example, Web sites with URLs that end in a series of numbers are unlikely to be those of legitimate charitable organizations. In addition, a majority of charities have Web addresses ending in .org instead of .com or .net.

The information a site asks for may be another red flag. Many reputable organizations solicit donations via their Web site. But the only information such Web sites will ask for is a donor’s mailing address, credit card information and possibly a phone number. Sites that ask for more sensitive personal information, including a social security number, birth date, bank routing number, bank account number, or even the personal identification number associated with a bank account, are likely disreputable and not to be trusted. Sharing such information online leaves a person especially vulnerable to identity theft.

Online giving is often a quick and easy way to donate to a favorite charity. But donors must be careful that their goodwill is not being taken advantage of by the many online criminals posing as reputable charities in need of donations.

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