Beware of Japan-relief scams

As more information about the devastation caused by the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan becomes available, many people want to assist in some way. In addition to horrific deaths, injuries, crumpled buildings, destroyed infrastructure and threats from failed nuclear power plants, the earthquake has the potential to create yet another disaster: scams to defraud the public.

The Office of Consumer Affairs of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services warns the public to be wary of any requests for personal information or financial support which cite the recent disaster as justification, and to give wisely when donating to charitable organizations.

“One of the tough lessons I’ve learned this year as VDACS Commissioner is that there are people out there who will try to use a disaster to scam well-intended donors,” said Matt Lohr. “We’ve seen it time and again, like after the September 11 tragedies, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and other disasters from floods to winter storms. Our advice to donors is, even though the need is urgent, take the time to donate wisely and be on your guard to protect yourself from identity theft.”

The Office of Consumer Affairs offers the following tips to ensure that donations do the most good at the same time they protect the personal information of the donor:

Give money rather than in-kind contributions. What relief organizations urgently need is money, not food, clothing or medical supplies. These tangible donations provide no immediate relief to disaster victims and could actually detract from more effective fundraising efforts.

Give only to well-established organizations such as the American Red Cross that have a demonstrated track record of relief aid.

Be extremely wary if a so-called relief organization contacts you with a cold call or e-mail. Do not respond to any unsolicited (spam) incoming e-mails and certainly do not click to links contained within those messages.

Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as surviving victims or officials asking for donations via e-mail or social networking sites.

Utilize online resources to verify the authenticity and non-profit status of any organization that solicits you. Resources include GuideStar at www2.guidestar.org and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance at give.org, among others.

Be cautious of e-mails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files because the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders.

Make contributions directly to known organizations rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf. This ensures that contributions are received and used for intended purposes.

Do not give your personal or financial information to anyone who solicits contributions. Providing such information may compromise your identity and make you vulnerable to identity theft. Reputable firms do not conduct business in this manner and consumers should not divulge Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, PIN numbers, identifiers for stock transfers or any other financial or personal information in response to suspect inquiries.

Do not give in to pressure. Take your time to check out the organization before donating. The opportunity to assist victims is not going to go away if you fail to donate immediately.

“This situation is tragic and continues to get worse. Don’t add to the repercussions of this earthquake and tsunami by falling prey to a scam artist,” adds Lohr. “I wholeheartedly encourage Virginia’s citizens to donate to relief funds, but I also urge them to donate wisely so they do not become victims themselves. Consumers need to remain on the alert for fraudulent activities, and they need to protect their own identities in the process.”


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