Computer-money

The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office said it’s not difficult to look up the charity first: a nonprofit that raises more than $25,000 annually or uses professional fundraisers must be on file with the state. (Metro Creative Images)

On the fundraising website GoFundMe, Diane wants your cash to help rebuild Houston, but gives no details of what she plans to do.

Jake, an actor who made himself internet-famous with short videos, wants to help Houston and will take your money via debit or credit card.

And Shantavia wants to help, too, after she saw a man rescued by helicopter. She closes out her plea with a Bible quote directing potential givers to trust in the Lord.

The natural disaster unfolding in Houston may have no parallel in the city’s history, but something much more predictable has flooded the internet as legions of people tapping their inner Jerry Lewis have opened fundraising efforts online.

Some are no doubt genuine, but state charity officials warned Tuesday that online scams are likely among the thousands of people saying they can use your money to make life better for flood victims.

“There are dishonest people who are willing to try to take advantage,” said Kris Kewitsch, executive director of Charities Review Council based in St. Paul. “It happens all the time.”

Her organization has three big tips for charitable giving: give cash, do your research, and consider donating to an organization that will help with the recovery.

Cash is best because donated items require a lot of effort to organize, sort and distribute, she said. Food banks and food shelves can usually buy more food per dollar than an average person, so send cash instead of food even if your intention is to help supply meals for displaced residents.

And consider the long term. Natural disasters get a lot of attention in the early days, but the cleanup in Houston will be lengthy, and needs will continue far into the future.

The Federal Trade Commission suggested that people give to charities that they know and trust. If the charity sounds new, it could be: new websites with the words “Hurricane” and “Harvey” were being registered this week, according to internet domain registries.

The website harveyfloodrelief.org, for example, contains a handful of pictures and a single paragraph describing its mission. A button for more information takes viewers to CNN.com. And the website accepts all major credit cards and PayPal.

Use a service such as Charity Navigator to check out a fundraising effort if you’re unsure of the organization behind it. The Charity Navigator website includes ratings of most major charities, and has a page devoted to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts that points readers to some of the most reputable relief organizations working on the ground in Houston, including the Houston Food Bank, the Food Bank of Corpus Christi, Houston Humane Society, Houston SPCA or San Antonio Humane Society.

Some of the charities working in Houston with the highest rating from Charity Navigator include Direct Relief and MAP International, each of which had perfect scores of 100 out of 100.

The American Red Cross, which came under fire for mishandling donations during the Haiti earthquake crisis, had a still-respectable score of 83.33.

Other websites available for checking out a charity before giving include CharityWatch, GuideStar and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance.

It’s also a good idea to be especially wary of unsolicited online appeals for help, according to the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team. Malware and computer viruses spread by criminals sometimes proliferate during a major natural disaster as websites ask people to click on a link to help those in need. The link could be the hacker’s method for infiltrating your computer and stealing information, the agency warned.

Then there’s fundraising via social media websites such as GoFundMe. The direct appeals can be especially powerful, and in some cases result in needy individuals getting hugely beneficial cash aid. But donations turned over to a GoFundMe campaign don’t qualify for any tax deduction, and the website takes a slice of the donation as a services fee.

The website has something called the GoFundMe Guarantee that says you can get a refund if your donation does not go to the person or people you were intending to help. To get the refund, you need to submit a form that includes any evidence you have that the money did not go to the intended recipient.

Celebrities who want to help out in times of disaster can draw millions of dollars by tapping their fan base, but in at least two recent cases the donations might have been better sent to a known charity.

Actor Sean Penn earned some scrutiny when it was discovered that some of the money he raised in the Haiti earthquake went to pay for his first-class flights. Hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, meanwhile, raised $16 million in donations through his Yele charity for Haiti earthquake victims, but it was later alleged that he spent millions on staff salaries, consultants, a $375,000 landscaping bill for its offices, plus a $100,000 payment to himself for a musical performance. The charity collapsed amid allegations of fraud and mismanagement.

A spokesman for the Minnesota state attorney general said it’s not difficult to look up the charity first: a nonprofit that raises more than $25,000 annually or uses professional fundraisers must be on file with the state. People can check those files either at the attorney general’s website — look for the “charities” tab — or by calling the office directly at 651-296-3353.

“Minnesotans are very charitable people and we give a lot of our resources and time to charities, but you just want to be careful and do your homework,” said AG spokesman Ben Wogsland.

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy

Load comments