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Michelle Singletary: Beware of storm-chasing scammers trying to capitalize on tornado relief efforts

By Michelle Singletary Washington Post

I can’t stop looking at the photos of the once tree-lined neighborhoods, downtown areas, schools, churches and businesses that have been destroyed by the tornadoes that tore through several states Friday night and Saturday morning.

A snapshot of a brown stuffed teddy bear sitting among the rubble that was once somebody’s house in Kentucky makes me tear up.

How could the photos of areas that appear as if bombs were dropped and of people trying to salvage anything from their demolished homes not move you to give to relief efforts to feed and house the tornado victims?

The families might not have the financial resources for the funerals for the dozens of people who have died.

You’re feeling generous, and that’s a good thing. Your help is needed. But one thing is for sure. The scammers will be coming for your donation dollars, too.

You will get an email, a text message or a legitimate-looking appeal on your social media platform asking that you give to charities assisting the residents, workers and employers struggling to recover from the tornadoes that upended their lives.

“This is exactly the kind of scam that we worry about,” said Sunita Lough, commissioner of the IRS tax-exempt and government entities division. “People will call. Everyone has heard on the news about so many people in need. But if someone calls you, you don’t need to make a donation right then and there.”

Before you write that check or give to a GoFundMe campaign or Cash App some money, take the time to investigate the charitable solicitation. Don’t enrich the scammers trying to capitalize on tornado-related relief efforts.

Lough was speaking during a press call to promote two things: a special tax provision for charitable donations that ends Dec. 31 and an online tool to check whether your donation is going to a qualified charity.

“I hate that this is timely, but it is,” said David L. Thompson, vice president of public policy for the National Council of Nonprofits. “It’s terrific that the incentive is there right now when it is needed.”

Ordinarily, you can’t take the standard deduction and claim a deduction for your charitable contributions. Nearly 9 in 10 taxpayers take the standard deduction, according to the IRS. A temporary law change for 2021 tax returns, however, allows individuals to claim a deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions made to qualifying charities this year. The maximum deduction is $600 for married couples. Cash contributions to qualifying charitable organizations under the rule change have to be made by year’s end.

To check the status of a charity at Irs.gov, use the “Tax Exempt Organization Search” tool.

The Better Business Bureau offers a checklist of tips on how to give to tornado relief efforts without being scammed:

Be on the lookout for impostors

Scammers will create emails or send text messages that appear to be from legitimate charities. Check out the Better Business Bureau’s Give.org before making a contribution. Beware of start-up charities that carry the name of the disaster. Such quickly established organizations may not have the experience to provide aid.

Don’t be rushed

Con artists use the urgency of the situation to create scams. But there’s enough time for you to pause and verify a charitable solicitation.

“Legitimate charities are happy to take your donation tomorrow or next week, even though this is an urgent situation,” said Kelsey O. Coleman, director of communications and public affairs for the Better Business Bureau serving the metro D.C. area and eastern Pennsylvania.

Be careful of crowdfunding appeals

Investigate before giving directly to online campaigns for individuals.

“Some crowdfunding platforms do a better job than others of vetting postings,” Coleman said.

GoFundMe said that more than 300 fundraisers have been created on its crowdfunding platform in response to the tornadoes. Within 72 hours, more than $1.2 million had been raised from more than 15,000 donors to help affected families, communities and businesses, according to a GoFundMe spokesperson.

Immediately after the storms, GoFundMe said it began monitoring its platform for fundraisers created for families and individuals affected. The site created a centralized hub for donors to identify fundraisers that have been verified by the company’s Trust and Safety team. This hub will continue to be updated as new fundraisers are verified, the spokesperson said.

For a fundraiser to be considered verified, the site has to identify the organizers, who they are raising funds for, the organizers’ relationship to the recipient of the funds and how the funds will be used. GoFundMe says it also holds all funds until it can confirm the identity of recipients and they have been authorized to withdraw the funds.

By the way, if a crowdfunding posting is claiming to be helping a specific individual or family, donors in the United States generally cannot take a federal income tax deduction, the BBB points out.

Be cautious of appeals recommended by friends

If someone you know forwards an email, you might not question it, because it’s coming from a person you trust. That’s a mistake. Affinity fraud is a tried and true way for scammers to infiltrate a network of friends and family.

It’s easy to become emotional when you see images of devastation and loss of life, but take a pause to scrutinize a donation request.

“This is a devastating situation and the need is urgent, but take the time to be thoughtful with your gift,” Coleman said. “Give, but give wisely. You want to be impactful but careful.”

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