Thanks to the growing number of digital donation options available today, it’s never been easier to give to a cause that’s close to your heart. Online fundraising platforms simplify the process of providing financial support to people, movements and organizations that matter to you, whether they’re located in your town or across the globe. But while these systems and websites are great for bringing more accessibility to charitable giving, they’ve also opened the door to scammers looking to take advantage of people’s kindness.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give. While it’s true unscrupulous scammers have found ways to take advantage of the public’s comfort with these platforms by targeting would-be donors, it’s also true that you can protect your finances — and your generosity — by donating smartly. These tips can help you evaluate fundraising opportunities and protect yourself when donating online.
Understand the Rules
Before donating on a crowdfunding website, be sure you understand where your money is actually going and how it’ll be used. Each crowdfunding website is a different organization with different terms and conditions. Some websites have more stringent vetting processes for causes and campaign organizers than others. Some make it very clear that you’re donating at your own risk.
Additionally, crowdfunding platforms typically take a portion of donations to pay for operating costs and other spending. While this isn’t a scam, it’s important to know how much of your money is actually going to your intended recipient — they may be getting less than you think, unless you use a site that takes fees from donors, not fundraisers.
Understand the Risks
Some crowdfunding campaigns aim to raise money for a single family or person. Before donating, determine who organized the campaign. Does the organizer know the person the money is going to? Is there any information to prove that the organizer has a way of getting the money to the right person? Unfortunately, there’s a risk a campaign organizer could raise money for a legitimate cause and keep it for themselves or make up a cause just to make money.
Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to discover these facts when the campaign is for someone you don’t know. It’s often safer to donate to campaigns where you know the organizers or the recipients personally. You won’t necessarily become a victim of fraud if you contribute to a campaign for people you don’t know, but there’s a higher risk. Having a lot of donations doesn’t mean a campaign is legitimate.
Beware of Vagueness
Fundraising campaigns, particularly those for individuals and families, often include pictures and written descriptions of the reasons for the campaigns. Look for names, locations and specifics. A description that’s short or vague may be a cause for concern. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends doing a reverse image search on any photos included in a crowdfunding campaign. This can help you quickly determine if the images are stock photos or pictures that appear in multiple campaigns.
Social media is a great avenue for getting a message out to a large audience — fast — and stories that tug at heartstrings often go viral. Consider these two scenarios. You’re surfing your favorite Facebook group where wildlife rehabbers collaborate, and someone posts a link to donate to their local animal shelter. You’re reading a Twitter hashtag about a recent wildfire, and someone posts to the GoFundMe page for a family who has lost their home. Those links may be legitimate — or clicking on them may be a mistake.
Practice Link Safety
Regardless of how legitimate the post seems, a link can take you anywhere. Some scammers post links that spoof the websites of charitable organizations or fundraising platforms, meaning they look the same as the real websites but don’t belong to the platform — they’re just designed to appear that way. When you make a donation using these fake links, you’re actually paying the scammer. Always check the URL of a donation link. If you still have concerns, talk with someone in the crowdfunding site’s customer support department who can help verify whether the link is real.
Verify Who Sent a Link
Don’t let your guard down just because the link comes from someone you know. Hackers and scammers impersonate individuals on social media. Before clicking on a link from a friend, ask yourself if the post’s wording or the cause itself aligns with what you know about the person. Receiving a link soon after becoming friends or receiving a follow from someone you thought you were already connected with is a red flag.
Practicing Online Donation Safety
Being safe about donations you hear about on crowdfunding sites or social media can require some research. Here’s how to keep yourself safe during your search.
Donate Through Trustworthy Sites
When you learn about a compelling cause on social media, do your own research to find the legitimate way to donate. Go directly to a charity’s website rather than donating through a random link from someone you don’t know well. Often, websites for legitimate charities have .org endings. A website that ends in .com, .net or .biz is usually for a commercial cause.
Keep Digital Donations Online
Banks and credit card companies have safeguards to protect you if you’ve donated to a fraudulent campaign on a fundraising website. To ensure they don’t lose any of the money they received, some scammers reach out to donors to get additional donations offline. It’s cause for concern if someone on a crowdfunding website asks you to make a donation via cash, check, money order or some other offline form of payment. These forms of payment are much harder to trace.
Beware of Overly Friendly Organizers
Some crowdfunding platforms allow organizers to send updates to donors. They include information about the campaign’s progress and the people it supports. These aren’t personalized messages. It’s unusual for the organizers or recipients of a crowdfunding campaign to reach out to you directly, especially if they don’t know you offline. Sometimes these communications are setups to ask for untraceable money.
Donating via a crowdfunding website is an effective way of supporting important causes, but there’s still room for risk. Understanding the basics of crowdfunding — and practicing the tips above — can help you donate safely.