Commentary

Ukraine invasion inspires generosity, but donors should be wary of scammers

March 3, 2022 6:30 pm

Cybercrime is increasingly a threat to businesses. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Such is the velocity of news and information that within minutes of the first air strikes, millions of people around the world were notified of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Many millions more have since found out and continue to consume coverage of the fallout. 

There will be no shortage of stories to shine a light on as events unfold in Eastern Europe. Many will center on the utter devastation inherent in warfare, of the lives irreparably changed or lost entirely. In the darkest of circumstances, some of the best in humanity shined through the collective response of those who knew only that there was a crisis and that they were able to contribute. 

A cursory search of “Ukraine” on crowdfunding and social media platforms looks very different this week than it did last. The volume of opportunities to donate grows exponentially by the day, each page an opportunity to bolster support or affect change. Donors can help to provide temporary accommodations for those fleeing the country or even supply the Ukrainian army with military equipment for battle.

Dizzying process

The process of donating can be a dizzying one for the uninitiated. GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Patreon are just three of the numerous crowdfunding platforms available to donors. That’s before you get to the countless charities and nonprofit organizations in the U.S. and abroad willing to assist. 

Generosity in the wake of tragedy is a beautiful act that should be encouraged. But your Better Business Bureau (BBB) cautions that not all who solicit donations are interested in or able to help. 

One of the first rules in a scammer’s playbook is to prey on the vulnerability of an unsuspecting victim. The aftermath of a tragedy or a natural disaster, then, represents an ideal setting for a con artist to weaponize a moment for personal gain. 

Scammers vs. unsophisticated

These scams are as lucrative as they are abundant. Some of these appeals are intentionally vague, while others are impossibly specific. Some claim to be created by relatives of Ukrainians caught in the crossfire, while others indicate they can provide resources from a different hemisphere. Some request contributions in cash, while others prefer cryptocurrency or wire transfer. 

Some of these sites aren’t scams at all; they’re merely fundraising campaigns arranged by good-hearted people who lack the knowledge or organizational infrastructure necessary to successfully execute such an operation. 

Donors understandably want to ensure their money is spent in the service of those impacted. Yet time and time again, these same donors are willing to overlook glaring red flags or unwilling to conduct the research necessary to separate the reputable from the fraudulent.  

Read the fine print

BBB has tips to consider when donating to Ukraine relief efforts.

Each crowdfunding platform is its own island. Rules and regulations aren’t standardized, nor are they streamlined, and although many of these platforms verify account creators before allowing them to receive donations, plenty fail to properly execute the vetting process. Read the fine print to learn the site’s refund policy and costs for administration before entering into an agreement. 

Don’t assume that a photo confirms a special connection to those in peril. Con artists often repurpose the work of on-the-scene photojournalists or victims in an attempt to legitimize a counterfeit operation. A reverse image search can help you spot whether a photo has been stolen from elsewhere. 

When in doubt, donate money — the plastic kind. In-kind items will be difficult to transport and effectively distribute, and the humanitarian needs are rapidly changing. Money provides the most flexibility to the organization and can be applied to the area of greatest need. If possible, donate by credit card; this mode of payment has built-in layers of fraud protection that others do not.

Understand whether a gift is tax deductible. If a tax deduction is a consideration, consider that not all organizations providing assistance are tax exempt as charities under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Check out a U.S. organization’s tax status with the IRS. The funding of weapons and other military help, for instance, wouldn’t be tax deductible for charitable purposes. 

Stick with the standards. It’s encouraged to begin your donating process at Give.org, where a list of experienced relief organizations that meet the 20 BBB Charity Standards can be accessed. These standards cover everything from financial transparency to the accuracy of solicitation materials to the status and makeup of the organization’s board of directors. 

 If you know, speak up. The scam community thrives in silence. If you experience a scam or are aware of one, report it to BBB Scam Tracker to protect your community.

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Josh Planos
Josh Planos

Josh Planos is the vice president of communications and public relations for the Better Business Bureau serving Nebraska, South Dakota, the Kansas Plains & Southwest Iowa. He serves as a spokesperson for the organization and is responsible for educational outreach efforts, including scam prevention and awareness. His writing has been published by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, among other news outlets.

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