As donations begin pouring into legitimate aid programs this week for the Japanese relief effort, scam artists are setting up shop in record numbers as well.
Before you send a donation, either via text, e-mail, website, phone or even the mail, make sure it will really go to relief and not a fraudster's pockets.
Americans are already donating in large numbers. In the first five days after the earthquake and tsunami March 11, the Red Cross collected $47 million and sent $10 million to the country, said Lynn Hadley, regional Red Cross spokeswoman. Around $2 million in donations came from its texting donation program, she said.
"Americans are wonderful when a catastrophe like this happens," Hadley said.
The problems facing Japan are huge, despite a Red Cross volunteer force of 2 million in the country, Hadley said.
"There are 550,000 displaced," she said. "Red Cross has 2,500 shelters. We're using the funds for food, shelter, water and other supplies they need."
The Tarrant area's Red Cross chapter is working with Kroger and Six Flags to further its fundraising reach. Kroger will have cash boxes at checkout lanes for the next three weeks for donations to the Red Cross for Japanese relief at all 208 stores in Texas and Louisiana, including 85 stores in Dallas-Fort Worth. A similar collection for Haiti last year grossed $50,000 in one month, said a Kroger spokesman.
Six Flags is working on a link on its website for Red Cross donations, Hadley said.
The Salvation Army also has several ways to donate, said Patrick Patey, spokesman for the organization's DFW Metroplex Command.
"And 100 percent of disaster donations go to the disaster," he said.
The Salvation Army has been in Japan since 1895 and has more than 1,000 staff members in 22 facilities, Patey said. The organization has been providing meals, water, blankets, diapers and other necessities to displaced people, he said.
But for every legitimate organization collecting donations, there are hundreds of illegitimate ones. Officials from the FBI, Texas attorney general's office, Better Business Bureau and others warn that fraud in Japan relief fundraising is high.
Within the first few hours of the earthquake and tsunami, researchers at the software security firm Symantec found more than 50 "Japan tsunami" or "Japan earthquake" domain names that were parked, available for sale or linked to earthquake sites.
Symantec also found a Japanese spin on the long-running "Nigerian prince" e-mail request. This one involves a bogus "next of kin," claiming to want to settle millions of dollars owed a victim of Japan's disasters, money he would share if the e-mail receiver responds. Those who fall for the scheme will have their identity compromised or pick up a nasty computer virus.
This week, an e-mail request purporting to be from the Salvation Army hit my in-box. Clues it wasn't legit included a "zzn.com" in its web address ("zzn" is not normally in a Web address, and most nonprofits are .org or .gov). The letter also contained grammatical errors and required a minimum donation of $100 -- both red flags to the legitimacy of the sender.
Patey found two more errors in the phony e-mail: It said the Salvation Army has been around for 127 years, when it has actually been 146 years. And at the end of one paragraph were the words "Additional Comments from the Organization" -- except there aren't any additional comments. Clearly, the letter writer hadn't quite finished the pitch before sending it.
While this was an easy scam to see through, others are more professional, said Daniel Borochoff, an analyst at CharityWatch.org.
"Any teenager can set up a website that looks impressive," he said.
In addition to e-mails and websites, scammers are using social media like Facebook pages to attempt to collect funds, Borochoff said. Facebook friends can pose as desperate Japanese looking for funds, he said.
The most important thing to remember about giving contributions online is to go directly to the charity website, rather than donating from another website or replying to an e-mail, he said.
If you get an e-mail or suspect fraud relating to disaster donations in any other way, report it. You can call the Texas attorney general's consumer complaint hotline at 800-252-8011 or go to www.texasattorneygeneral.gov. You can also contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud, part of the U.S. Justice Department, at 866-720-5721 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.