Experts warn to 'give, but give wisely' in relief for Hurricane Harvey

Experts warn to 'give, but give wisely' in relief for Hurricane Harvey (Photo: CBS)

(KUTV) Houston and the surrounding areas have no shortage of people around the globe wanting to help. It’s a fact that has consumer watchdogs nervous.

Daniel O'Bannon, who runs Utah's division of consumer protection, said fraudsters always come out of the woodwork trying to make a cheap buck on the backs of people who are suffering during a major disaster.

"We always get a little bit worried about people giving money to charity but not being cautious in how they do it," he said.

Jane Driggs, president and CEO of the Utah arm of the Better Business Bureau echoed the sentiment.

"The videos, pictures and stories of the devastation in Texas [are] heart-breaking," she said. "Unfortunately, disasters are when scam artists start to prey on those who want to help," Driggs said.

The Federal Trade Commission is also sounding warning bells.

"Be alert for charities that seem to have sprung up overnight in connection with current events," The FTC said.

One place where charities are popping up is the popular crowd-funding website GoFundMe. In fact, GoFundMe has created this landing page just for people raising money in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are pouring in to the various campaigns. People are donating to specific causes, like helping animals, or individuals who have lost it all – or at least that’s what the fundraising campaigns claim.

How can a kind-hearted donor be sure it isn’t a scammer trying to dupe folks into giving to the crook?

GoFundMe recognizes that not all campaigns are legitimate. Still, spokesperson Bobby Whithorne says it's "the safest place to give" because users are "fully protected by the GoFundMe guarantee."

In the event of fraud, GoFundMe donors “will get refunded," he said.

Whithorne also said GoFundMe works to "verify the identity" of the folks who are raising money.

O'Bannon said, when in doubt, long established, reputable and registered charities are the safest bet for giving.

"I would be cautious of giving to something that's just been set up," he said. "We want [donations] to have an impact, to actually go to help the people that need the help."

In Utah, charities are legally required to be registered, and you can find a list of those charities online.

But under Texas law, most charities or non-profit organizations are not required to register with the state, according to the Texas attorney general’s office.

The BBB has information on how to help, which charities on the ground in Texas and what to watch out for when giving , including being wary of crowdfunding.

"Keep in mind that some crowdfunding sites do very little vetting of individuals who decide to post for assistance after a disaster, and it is often difficult for donors to verify the trustworthiness of crowdfunding requests for support. If you decide to contribute via crowdfunding, it is probably best to give to people who you personally know that have posted requests for assistance," the BBB says.

The Federal Trade Commission has also compiled a list of tips help consumers give wisely including never clicking on links or opening attachments in e-mails unless you know who sent it.

"You could unknowingly install malware on your computer," the FTC says.

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