Charity on the Internet: How to identify scammers

September 5, 2019
We tell you how to distinguish genuine fundraising groups on Facebook from scammers preying on people's kindness

Facebook has been experiencing a wave of fake fundraising campaigns. The pattern is familiar: Attackers create groups from scratch to which they add a couple of posts. They provide bank transfer details along with a bunch of tear-jerking comments.

The groups tend to follow a template. The group’s name contains an appeal for help, and the posts provide emotional stories, usually about terminally ill children whose suffering is illustrated by photos and videos that are posted on the page.

Some of the posts are practically word-for-word copies of posts in other fraudulent groups. The only details that differ in each group are the child’s name, his or her diagnosis, and the name of the hospital where they are receiving treatment. Frequently the contact information and the bank transfer details are the same for multiple groups — which, by the way, is the most reliable indicator of the scam.

New scam groups appear every month, and even though complaints shut them down quickly, some users are inevitably taken in and transfer money to the scammers.

Example of fake charity groups on Facebook

How can you tell scammers from genuine people and real charitable foundations?

Of course, along with fake groups on Facebook, real people with real problems are also raising funds. Therefore, the takeaway is not to ignore all requests for aid on the Internet. We have compiled a list of clues for you to factor in when deciding whether a fundraising campaign is genuine.

The age of the group and its content

If a group is just a few weeks old and contains only three posts, but has been viewed and reposted several thousand times, it is most likely run by scammers and cheats. Real communities take time to develop, and the organizers of these groups provide significantly more information.

Pressure for you to feel pity

The use of shocking videos, low-quality stock photography, plaintive verses, and a lot of exclamation points and text in all caps is designed to make you act spontaneously without thinking critically about the story’s veracity.

Self-respecting organizations usually do not resort to such measures, because it is more important for them to build trusting relationships with donors and be able to continue assisting those in need in the future. Therefore, they tell the stories of their patients in plain language, without strong emotional appeals, and they provide detailed descriptions of how treatment is proceeding and how they spend the money they receive.

Scammers on the other hand, want to raise as much money as possible before their group is closed, so they resort to emotional pressure.

For example, in scammer groups, the fundraising goal is usually “almost reached,” despite the community’s recent creation. At the same time, they say, an “urgent bill” needs to be paid, and therefore they need your money right away. The more you rush, the less likely you are to verify whether the campaign is genuine. Therefore, if they say they needed donations “yesterday,” that’s a suspicious sign.

Of course, the desperate mother of a sick child can write an emotional post asking for aid, but it is unlikely that she will include mournful poetry. Rather, it is more likely she will provide a detailed description of the disease and what is being done to fight it. Therefore, pay attention to all factors as a whole, not just the style of presentation.

Disordered or absent supporting documentation

Generally speaking, scammer groups lack even a trace of medical reports or other medical records. And if such documents are provided, then you should read them carefully and make sure that they match the details of the request for assistance.

For example, in one group that was collecting money for the treatment of a girl with heart disease, the organizers posted photos of medical reports stating that the child had Down syndrome. It may in fact be the case that she has both diagnoses, but the posting of irrelevant information that only confuses users is a strong sign that something is wrong with the group.

Responses to clarifying questions

It’s common for concerned people to ask for more details from the group organizers. Requests for updates on the child’s condition, information about their disease and care, even the names of their doctors and nurses. In scammer groups, these comments will be deleted very quickly, and the users who posted them will be banned.

Websites of foundations

Sometimes links leading to the website of a supposedly charitable organization are posted in these groups. This is how scammers try to increase the level of trust in their page showing that they are not just on Facebook. If you visit such a website, we don’t recommend entering any information — at least, not without careful study.

Start by noting the date of the last update, and also verify whether the website contains an income and expense report. Charitable foundations are required to publish this information. If a website collects money but does not report how the organization spends it, that organization is not trustworthy.

Help others while thinking critically

The desire to help others is a wonderful impulse. However, just as is true of many other things in life, you stand to benefit others more if you don’t act impulsively, but rather think critically.

To ensure that your money is really put to good use and doesn’t just line scammers’ pockets, spend a little bit of time verifying the story behind any fundraising request that you receive. Perhaps the best way is to donate your money to a known charitable foundation and not to individuals. That way you can rest assured that your money will go where you intend it to.