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Avoiding E-mail Scams


"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
-- Benjamin Franklin


Add "e-mail scams" to Franklin's list. Fraudulent e-mails pop up with alarming regularity. Many claim to be from charities and target unsuspecting donors. Others purport to come from individuals charged with turning over a bequest or other large sum to charity. The first kind defrauds donors and damages the public trust's in the nonprofit sector; the second type bilks charitable organizations and can endanger their financial stability.

A user recently wrote to us about a variation on the Cashier Check Scam (described below) that is currently circulating through cyberspace and specifically targeting nonprofits. Our correspondent suggested that we alert Newsletter readers about the scam, noting, "Given the razor-thin margins that most non-profits operate in, a loss of only a small sum through this fraud—or even just a slackening of fundraising efforts because of 'all that money in the bank'—could cause bankruptcy."

Current Scams

Right now, e-mail scams aimed at nonprofits and donors seem to fall into two major groups:

  • Cashier Check Scam

    In this scam, an individual contacts a nonprofit via e-mail, declaring his or her intention to donate a large sum to help the organization's cause, and perhaps even promising to recruit the help of wealthy friends. The check, however, will be made out for more than the writer has pledged to give you. All your "benefactor" asks is that after the check clears, you send the remainder along to a third individual. Because the FDIC requires banks to make funds from cashier's, certified, or teller's checks available in one to five days, the check goes through, and you kindly send along the extra thousands of dollars. In a few weeks, though, the bank detects that the check was a forgery and the funds are no longer available, meaning that your organization has lost the money that you passed along.

    As Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes.com advises, "No matter how sweet the deal, don't get involved in any sale where the buyer wants you to accept a check for an inflated amount and refund the overage."

  • Hurricane Katrina-Related Scams

    Many individuals and groups opened their hearts and checkbooks to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In our September Question of the Month, 44 percent of respondents said that they had made a personal donation to a nonprofit, and another 31 percent told us that they planned to do so in response to Katrina ("Newsletter Readers Respond to Katrina").

    Unfortunately, a number of frauds relating to Katrina disaster relief have been reported. The FBI has issued warnings about three:

    1. E-mail Disguised as American Red Cross Message Phishing for Credit Card Information
      An e-mail asks for a simple five-dollar donation to the Red Cross. When you click on the link provided in the message, it appears to take you to the Red Cross's Web site. In reality, it takes you to an entirely unaffiliated site, and your gift never reaches the Red Cross—or any other charity.
    2. Nigerian 419 Scheme
      Much like the traditional "Nigerian 419" scams, these messages claim that individuals killed in Hurricane Katrina and or the tsunamis left a large inheritance. Some of the messages ask for help transferring the funds from a foreign account, promising to donate money to your organization's relief efforts as thanks. Other e-mails state that your nonprofit will actually receive the full inheritance.
    3. Charitable Phishing, Spoofing Alert
      In an attempt to capitalize on the outpouring of relief effort for hurricane victims, many scammers have set up Web sites posing as charities involved in the relief and recovery efforts. These bogus sites often take in large amounts of money and disappear within a couple of days. Many e-mails directing people to these Web sites also attach images of the disaster sites, but the images prove to be viruses.

Protecting Yourself

So how can the discriminating donor or nonprofit tell the difference between a legitimate cause and a con? The FBI provides several suggestions. These tips include:

  • Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as Nigerian or foreign government officials asking for your help in placing large sums of money.
  • Do not believe the promise of large sums of money for your cooperation.
  • Guard your account information carefully.
  • To ensure contributions to U.S.-based non-profit organizations are received and used for intended purposes, go directly to recognized charities and aid organizations' Web sites, as opposed to relying on others to make the donation on your behalf.
  • Attempt to verify the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations by utilizing various Internet-based resources which may assist in confirming the existence of the organization, as well as its nonprofit status.

Reporting Fraud

If you receive e-mails similar to the scams described above or other suspicious messages, report them to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (formerly known as the IFCC), a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center. It takes minutes of your time and could help prevent others from falling prey to these schemes.

If you are a victim of Nigerian fraud schemes, the Secret Service asks that you send documentation to:

United States Secret Service
Financial Crimes Division
950 H Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001

If you receive a suspicious e-mail that mentions GuideStar, please let us know. In the interest of doing our best to protect the nonprofits listed in our database, we want to know about any illegal or inappropriate uses of our site. Please forward any suspicious messages to us at info@guidestar.org.

If an unsolicited e-mail seems to come from a legitimate organization, check with the nonprofit before reporting them. If the information you received was a fraud, they will let you know.

Rule of Thumb

Scammers are becoming more sophisticated, making it difficult to tell whether an e-mail is legitimate or not. The variety of frauds out there is limited only by the imagination of those who perpetrate them. Perhaps the best advice is this statement found on the IFCC's Web site, www1.ifccfbi.gov/strategy/fraudtips.asp:

"If it sounds too good to be true it probably is."

Lauren Nicole Klapper-Lehman, November 2005
© 2005, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Lauren Nicole Klapper-Lehman is an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary. She is currently a communications intern at GuideStar.
Topics: Communications