Charity scams and how to avoid them

February 25th, 2021

Australians are a generous people; we like to step up and help those in need. Unfortunately, there are fraudsters who try to take advantage of our compassion with ‘fake charity’ scams.

Scammers can approach us in many ways, but online scams are a particular problem. Recently, many people have started using social media to make charitable donations for the first time, and inexperience makes us vulnerable.

In 2020, Australians lost more money to fake charity scams over social media than over the phone or in person.

Anyone can fall victim to a fake charity scam. Fake charity scammers tend to defraud women more often than men and people aged 45-54 more than other age groups. Last year, the state hit hardest by fake charity scams was NSW.

Fake charity scams are most common during the Christmas season and in response to disasters like the Black Summer fires.

Spot the warning signs

If we see a charity appeal online, we should check carefully for warning signs. These include:

  • You’ve never heard of this charity before, or –
  • You have heard of this charity, but their name is misspelled or slightly different.
  • The message has spelling mistakes.
  • The message does not sound like this charity’s usual voice.
  • The message thanks you for a donation you don’t remember making. This is a trick to lower your defenses and get you to ‘donate’ again.
  • The message asks you to pay using gift cards, electronic currency (e.g. Bitcoin), or international funds transfer. Real charities will not ask for this.
  • The message says you have won a prize and asks for your financial details to redeem it. Real charities won’t send you prizes when you didn’t enter a competition, and they won’t ask for your banking details out of the blue.
  • The charity’s website URL contains spelling mistakes or subtle substitutions – e.g. swapping the number 1 for the letter L.
  • The charity’s website has spelling mistakes and fuzzy or low-res pictures or logos.

Make sure your donations are legit

If you would like to donate to a particular charity:

  • Search the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission register to check the charity is for real. Make sure you’ve typed the name in exactly as it reads in the appeal, as some scammers use names that look similar to genuine charities.
  • To find out more about a charity, enter their name into a search engine like Google rather than clicking on links.
  • Type the name of the charity into a search engine along with words like ‘scam’ and ‘complaint’, to check for recent warnings.
  • Check that the charity’s website URL contains ‘https’ and a padlock symbol.
  • Donate directly via the charity’s website or public donations number, not via social media pages.
  • Once you’ve donated, check that the charity sends you a receipt.
  • Keep a record of your donations and review your bank account statements regularly to check for any strange transactions.

If you think you’ve received a message from a fake charity scam:

  • Delete it without responding.
  • Do not open any links or attachments.
  • Block the sender.
  • If the message seems to come from a friend or family member, contact them to check whether they really sent it. Their account may have been hacked.

Been scammed?

Don’t beat yourself up about it. Thousands of intelligent Australians fall victim to scammers every year. It doesn’t mean you were ‘stupid’ – it means you were generous and trusting, and most of the time these are good qualities!

If you’ve been scammed, take these steps right away:

  • Contact your bank or financial institution.
  • If you have given the scammers personal information, change your account passwords.
  • Report the scam to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission so they can investigate and warn people.
  • If the scammers were posing as a genuine charity, alert the real charity so they can take action to protect their donors.
  • Report social media scams to the platform where it happened – see Scamwatch’s guide to reporting scams to Facebook.
  • Warn your family and friends so they can protect themselves.
  • If you’re feeling upset, reach out for support. You can access free, confidential counselling from Lifeline 13 11 14, Beyond Blue, 1300 22 4636, or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.

For more tips on avoiding fake charity scams, check out Scamwatch and the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.