TAMPA BAY, FL – Images of bombed-out homes in Ukrainian suburbs, rescuers solemnly carrying bodies on stretchers and families rushing to board crowded buses, dragging rolling suitcases filled with all their worldly possessions now dominate the media.
It’s no wonder that kind-hearted Americans are desperately looking for ways to help ease the suffering.
But before reaching for your wallet, be sure to investigate where your dollars are going, the FBI said. Federal investigators are warning Americans that scammers are taking advantage of people’s generosity to help residents of war-torn Ukraine. And these scammers rake in millions of dollars in the process.
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By creating nifty donation websites, sending official-looking emails or text messages to charities with names that look like legitimate names, and making incessant robocalls soliciting money for fake relief organizations, charity disaster scams have become big business.
Based on data from a random survey of nonprofits conducted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, approximately $40 billion is donated to bogus charities each year. This totals 13% of all funds given to legitimate charities.
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The staggering amount of donations unknowingly being given to fake charities has prompted the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance to issue a warning to Americans seeking to help people in Ukraine.
“We certainly encourage generosity to help Ukrainians, but caution donors to avoid questionable appeals,” said H. Art Taylor, president and CEO of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, which tracks charity scams.
Just as the coronavirus pandemic has spawned elaborate scams to trick people scared out of their hard-earned money into selling them fake COVID-19 tests, ineffective cures and faulty N95 face masks, Taylor said these unscrupulous people are targeting now selfless Americans who want to help people in Ukraine.
And their victims aren’t limited to the vulnerable or gullible, Taylor said.
He said the BBB has investigated sophisticated scams that have fooled savvy businessmen, savvy philanthropists and even other non-profit groups wanting to do their part.
Myriam Irizarry, chair of the Pinellas Community Foundation board of governors, said that was why the Clearwater-based nonprofit decided to launch the Tampa Bay Ukraine Humanitarian Relief Fund.
“Residents in the Tampa Bay area are looking for a reputable place to donate money to relief efforts in Ukraine,” she said.
Residents would struggle to find a more worthy recipient of their donations. The Pinellas Community Foundation has a perfect score on Charity Navigator, the world’s largest independent evaluator of nonprofit charities. Charity Navigator provides data and ratings for over 195,000 charities.
“Our goal is to provide a trusted medium for donors in Tampa Bay who ask us how they can make monetary contributions to help the suffering Ukrainian people,” Irizarry said.
Leaders of the organization said it was necessary to set up the fund due to an overwhelming number of requests from residents wanting to help.
“They see images on TV and it comes into our homes and onto our phones and they try to find reliable ways to help work on humanitarian issues and solve humanitarian issues resulting from war,” Duggan Cooley said. , CEO. of the Pinellas Community Foundation.
It was the desire to help provide funds and supplies to Ukrainians who needed them most that inspired the Pinellas Community Foundation to launch Ukraine Humanitarian Relief of Tampa Bay.
Too often, Cooley said, empathetic and well-meaning residents are targeted by scam artists eager to make money during a crisis.
He said that by donating to the PCF, residents can rest assured that their funds will go to those who need it most for food, water, shelter, medical supplies and other basic necessities. .
“Housing, technology, those things that we rely on for day-to-day living and day-to-day life, those are the kinds of things that will be supported by this fund and trusted charities,” Cooley said.
A Sarasota woman who prefers to use only her first name, Anna, for fear of Russian reprisals, has opened her family home in Poland to refugees. The house sits on a large piece of land which is now occupied by tents and makeshift shelters for refugees who have fled their homeland fearing for their safety as Russian cruise missiles rain down on neighborhoods in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv .
“My father passed away seven months ago and since then the house has stood empty,” said Anna, who was born in Poland but moved to the United States with her family more than 30 years ago, so that she was 19 years old. However, she said they kept the family farm and kept in touch with friends and relatives who were now helping to house the refugees on her family’s property.
Among the first to seek refuge on the property was a family of four including two children. They now live in the spacious family home with several other families who left their homes and most of their possessions in Ukraine.
“I called my friends and made sure the house was warm because it was winter. I made sure there were clean sheets, they had food when they came in before they can go out and buy what they need,” says Anne.
Funds raised by the Pinellas Community Foundation will provide shelter, hot meals and medical supplies to families now seeking asylum on Anna’s family farm.
The PFC also helps connect those interested in volunteering to help feed, provide medical care and build temporary shelter for Ukrainian refugees with reputable non-governmental humanitarian organizations working near the Ukrainian border.
Project Dynamo, a group of veterans based in Tampa Bay, is among the humanitarian agencies operating in Ukraine.
The non-profit organization evacuates American citizens and NATO allies desperate to leave the country and the dangers of Russian attacks.
According to co-founder Bryan Stern, volunteers packed refugees into cars and buses and drove them to safety in Poland, Romania and Hungary, which border Ukraine.
Project Dynamo was just launched in August when the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving behind thousands of American citizens trapped in the country when Kabul International Airport was closed.
Stern, an Army and Navy veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and Purple Heart recipient, and his friends Stan Bunner, a veteran of the Global War on Terror, now a lawyer in Naples, and Matt Herring, also a veteran decorated in the war on terrorism, who is now the CEO of Ultra Defense Corp. and Liberty Aviation International, decided to use his experience navigating foreign territory, dodge terrorists, and fight his way through hostile-operated military checkpoints to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan.
By recruiting other veterans and using their own funds, Florida residents managed to evacuate more than 2,000 Americans from Afghanistan between the August 31 US withdrawal and December 31.
After their bank accounts ran dry-hire buses, paid drivers, and funded plane tickets to the United States, Bunner helped Project Dynamo gain nonprofit status so they could accept donations and continue their work in Ukraine.
As of Friday, Project Dynamo had moved more than 300 US citizens and NATO allies out of Ukraine, but Stern said there were thousands more desperate to leave.
Taylor advised residents who want to help the Ukrainian people to seek out relief organizations that have a documented history of helping refugees and are already present in Ukraine, such as the American Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services and the Army. of Hi.
He said sending food, clothing and medical supplies is not always the best way to help because of the logistical problems of shipping them into occupied territory and dispersing them without attracting the attention of the enemy.
He said it is best to give money to aid organizations that know what to buy to avoid duplication and can distribute supplies efficiently.
Taylor also suggests that donors check whether the charity meets BBB standards for charitable accountability. The report, compiled by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, surveys all listed charities to ensure the humanitarian aid they seek is reaching Ukrainians.
Donors should also check if the charity is approved by Charity Navigator, he suggested.
The FBI said residents can also verify a charity’s legitimacy and review its track record using Federal Trade Commission resources. The FTC said CharityWatch and Candid are two other credible organizations that research charities.
Additionally, a reputable charity will enjoy tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. Donors can check whether the charity is legitimate by performing an IRS tax-exempt organization search, the FTC advised.
A telltale sign that a charity may be fake is if it makes exaggerated financial claims, such as “100% will be spent on relief,” Taylor said.
Despite their best efforts to be frugal, charities still have administrative expenses. Even a credit card donation has processing fees. Donors should therefore view pledges like this with suspicion.
Taylor said the charity should also be transparent. They should have websites listing the amount raised and how the money is spent