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Avoiding Disaster Fraud: Ensuring Donations Reach Victims

Avoiding Disaster Fraud: Ensuring Donations Reach Victims


By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

Start an Emergency & Disaster Management degree at American Military University.

When disheartening images appear in the media about areas devastated by natural disasters such as hurricanes, we commonly seek ways to contribute toward relief efforts. While it is commendable that we as a nation come together to support those in need following natural disasters, we should carefully evaluate where we send donations or resources. That ensures that our donations go where they are intended to go.

Criminals Often Use Natural Disasters like Hurricane Katrina for Scams and Other Frauds

Unfortunately, natural disasters such as large-scale hurricanes create fraud opportunities for criminals. As a result, it is important for you to only contribute to organizations or programs that properly deliver supplies and resources to those in need.

To put this into perspective, let’s examine what happened after Hurricane Katrina. According to the Department of Justice, Hurricane Katrina resulted in $180 billion in damages and resulted in the loss of 1,800 lives.

Following Hurricane Katrina, 5,000 questionable Katrina-associated websites were discovered from not just New Orleans but also nationwide. This level of criminal activity reflects the risk of fraud associated with disaster relief efforts.

Due to different forms of fraud that occurred during the aftermath of Katrina, the National Center for Disaster Fraud was established through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice and numerous law enforcement and regulatory organizations. Their mission was to improve the detection, prevention, investigation and prosecution of fraud and to be advocates for fraud victims.

Since the development of the National Center for Disaster Fraud, they have received more than 95,000 complaints associated with disaster fraud. These complaints involve from all 50 states, four foreign countries and 100 natural and man-made disasters, including hurricanes.

Techniques Used in Natural Disaster Fraud

Previous scams that have occurred following past natural and man-made disasters include scammers cold-calling and people purporting to represent a legitimate charity. In other cases, fraud victims have been directed to phony websites that appear legitimate. At these websites, donors are asked to provide personally identifiable information such as Social Security numbers and bank account numbers.

Donors may also be told to make money wire transfers. In most cases, the person committing fraud makes off with the funds, and no donations are sent to help victims.

How to Ensure Your Donations Reach the People They Are Intended to Help

The good news is that there are steps we can take to ensure that either financial or physical donations reach the hands of disaster victims. One of the best ways to avoid disaster fraud is to only donate to organizations that you are familiar with and have worked with in the past.

Also, consider using a local Red Cross or other organization that is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization; be sure it provides a tax-deductible receipt. In addition, ask how and when the donations will reach victims.

If you are interested in working with a non-profit organization that is engaged in disaster relief, a good resource is the National Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster.

Another way to reduce the risk of donating to someone who is not actually helping victims is to donate specific items that victims need. Let’s face it; scammers don’t want 100 boxes of diapers or a pallet of bottled water. Provide disaster relief supplies directly to a business or organization that you know and trust and who is actively engaged in delivering emergency supplies.

For victims of a hurricane, this may include the following items:

  • Water
  • Clothing
  • Canned goods
  • Non-perishable dry foods
  • Baby food
  • Tool kits
  • Packing boxes and tape
  • Chain saws
  • Generators
  • Household cleaning supplies
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Tarps

Many companies set up legitimate disaster response efforts in coordination with government officials.

Exercise Due Diligence before You Donate

Let’s not allow the scammers who wish to capitalize on disasters dissuade us from supporting victims in need. Instead, exercise your diligence in ensuring that your donations are provided to legitimate organizations that are actively delivering rescue and disaster aid.

FEMA offers additional guidance and information that can also assist with ensuring that your donations successfully reach intended victims.

About the Author 

Dr. Sadulski has over 20 years of experience in the field of homeland security and law enforcement. He will be speaking at the International Human Trafficking & Social Justice Conference at the University of Toledo on the topic of human trafficking in September 2019 and will be sharing some of his research on human trafficking in Central America. Dr. Sadulski will also be speaking at the Southern Criminal Justice Association’s Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, in September of 2019 and will be traveling to Central and South America to further his research in the fall. In addition to domestic speaking engagements, Dr. Sadulski has spoken in Europe and Central America on topics associated with human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, and police responses to domestic terrorism. He has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2011.