COVID-19 charity fraud is on the rise, warns the FBI—here’s how to safely donate without getting scammed this holiday season

Kristine Solomon
·5 min read

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Charity Scam warning sign, A yellow warning sign with text Charity Fraud and theft icon on a keyboard
Charity Scam warning sign, A yellow warning sign with text Charity Fraud and theft icon on a keyboard

Thinking of making charitable donations this holiday season? Great! It’s natural to get into a giving spirit this time of year—especially considering the year we’ve had. Bear in mind, though, there are plenty of cyber criminals out there waiting to catch you off guard and capitalize on your generosity.

The holidays are peak season for charity fraud, and the FBI released a statement last month warning people about scams associated with COVID-19 charities.

“Nationwide, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have received reports of scammers fraudulently soliciting donations for individuals, groups, and areas affected by COVID-19,” the warning reads. “They are leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to steal your money, your personal information, or both. Don’t let them.”

How do cyber criminals hook you in when you’re donating to a charity?

“There are legitimate organizations out there that are trying to raise money to help victims of COVID-19 and their families,” notes Adam Levin, cyber security expert and founder of Cyberscout, to Yahoo Life. “But then there are also scammers who send fake charitable requests.”

Fraudulent charity requests are designed to fool you, so it can be hard to tell the difference between a legitimate one and a trap designed to steal your money—or, worse, your entire identity, including your banking information and even your social security number. There are several ways to protect yourself.

Norton Security Online is the #1 cyber security software for thwarting charity fraud

Norton Security Online (Photo: subscriptions.yahoo.com)
Norton Security Online (Photo: subscriptions.yahoo.com)

One of your best defenses against charity fraud is a powerful software package like Norton Security Online, which provides bank-grade encryption for your online donations—as well as real-time protection from viruses, spyware, malware and other traps set by cyber criminals.

Norton Security Online is free to try for 30 days, and after that it’s just $4.99 a month for protection of up to five devices, including Macs, PCs, and smartphones.

This best-in-class software safely shields your personal and financial information from prying eyes whether you’re responding to a charity solicitation or doing any other banking transaction on your computer or smartphone. It even warns you if you’re about to download something fishy or visit a risky website.

Shop it: Norton Security Online, 30-day free trial, then $4.99 a month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

Charity fraud, Malwarebytes
Charity fraud, Malwarebytes

Be on the lookout for these specific charity-related cyber threats

Cyber security experts have zeroed in on a few specific ways cyber criminals have been perpetrating their fake charity requests. One way fraudsters are poaching dollars from well-meaning donors is through a method called phishing, in which they disguise themselves as legitimate charities to solicit funds via email. When these bogus “charities” contact you via text, it’s called smishing.

Some have been circulating a malicious Word document attached to an email that “allegedly contained information about coronavirus prevention,” according to Malwarebytes’ blog. Scammers have also been distributing emails, PDFs, MP4s, and Docx files, all with COVID-19 prevention-related titles—but the files actually contain dangerous malware.

Whichever way you slice it, it’s attempted theft.

“All of these threats rely on the same dangerous intersection of misinformation and panic—a classic and grotesque cyber crime tactic,” says the blog post. “A great defense to these is, quite simply, the truth.”

Levin agrees. “When you get contacted by a charity, it could be legitimate. But if you want to be safe, go directly to the website of the charity,” says Levin. “Ronald Reagan had a statement that he's famous for: ‘Trust, but verify.’ In this world today, you have to take that phrase and alter it to say, ‘Never trust. Always question. Always verify.’ Because you have too much to lose.”

Best practices for safely donating to charities online—and avoiding scams

Donation concept on laptop, tablet and smartphone screen over gray table. Top view
Donation concept on laptop, tablet and smartphone screen over gray table. Top view

The FBI says that once you’ve zeroed in on a charity, look to online reviews and consult sites like the Better Business Bureau, Give.org, Charity Navigator, or Charity Watch to verify their legitimacy. This applies to donations made through social media, crowdfunding websites, or directly to the charities themselves.

“Before donating, ask how much of the donation will go toward the program or cause you want to support,” the FBI says in its brief. “Every organization has administrative costs, and it’s important to understand those structures.”

No matter which charities you choose to donate to, Norton Security Online will have your back, defending your system against attempted malware infections in the event you do run into a charity fraud “booby trap.”

Norton Security Online (Photo: subscriptions.yahoo.com)
Norton Security Online (Photo: subscriptions.yahoo.com)

Norton Security Online is free to try for 30 days, and after that it’s just $4.99 a month for protection of up to five devices, including Macs, PCs, and smartphones.

Having Norton Security Online in your arsenal and understanding safe online behavior are the crucial combination for protecting yourself while also providing much-needed charity donations during a pandemic. The FBI says you should even double-check your financial statements after the fact to make sure no additional fees have been deducted.

Levin suggests turning on transaction alerts for your credit cards (and the FBI says credit cards are the safest way to donate) so you can get real-time updates.

"Never trust. Always question. Always verify. Because you have too much to lose." Adam Levin, Founder of Cyberscout

And then...bring on the holiday cheer! With Norton Security Online and smart, responsible online behavior, you can rest easy knowing you’re giving back safely. Don’t let charity fraud or identity theft dampen your giving spirit. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, generous, and justly protected.

Shop it: Norton Security Online, 30-day free trial, then $4.99 a month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

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