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Personal Finance > Five Tips
Giving for tsunami relief
How to give to legitimate outlets without falling prey to scams.
January 12, 2005: 4:48 PM EST
By Gerri Willis, CNN/Money contributing columnist

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CNN's Gerri Willis shares five tips on how to make sure your donation doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Since the devastating tsunami in South Asia last month, Americans have been generously donating to relief efforts.

Unfortunately, several crooks are taking advantage of that compassion and are defrauding consumers.

The FBI is investigating more than 170 Web sites that are preying on potential donors by mimicking the sites of well-known charities. You could have e-mail from one these Web sites in your inbox right now.

With all these solicitations for help, how do you know what's real?

In today's Five Tips, Gerri Willis, personal finance correspondent and host of CNN's Open House, explains how to make sure your donation goes to where it was intended: to help the victims.

1. Don't Just Click

Phishing, or sending out e-mails in an effort to scam consumers, is nothing new.

Unfortunately, the tsunami disaster is just the latest bait.

The FBI says crooks have sent out millions of e-mails to consumers asking for their help in the relief efforts.

The e-mail may ask you to wire money to a foreign account belonging to a family who lost a loved one.

Or it may offer a link, connecting you to a Web site that looks like that of the Red Cross, Unicef, or OxFam, but is fake.

According to Anti-Phishing Working Group, an association that fights e-mail fraud, even searching for "tsunami charities" on an Internet search engine can pull up some fraudulent Web sites.

Sergio Pinon, senior vice president of investment risk at MasterCard, says consumers should be wary of a Web site with a URL that ends in a series of numbers, "That's a dead giveaway a site is a fake, a copy of the real thing."

Another red flag: an address that ends in dot-com; charitable organizations' Web addresses usually end in dot-org.

On a fake site, you might be asked for personal information that legit sites don't ask for, like bank account and pin numbers, or your Social Security number.

You may also be asked for your full name, address and birth date. More information makes it easier for scam-artists to steal your identity.

If one of these phishing e-mails inspired you to donate, don't just click on the links they provide. Instead, "go directly to a charity's Web site, don't just get taken there," the FBI advises.

Rest assured you are going to a charity's actual Website by typing in its address yourself.

2. Be a Tattletale

If you get one these e-mails, speak up.

A large-scale FBI investigation is underway. But according to Mark McLane at NameProtect, which investigates online fraud, "This scam is evolving, there will be many more."

Do your part to help stop it by filing a complaint about the e-mail you received with the FBI's Internet Fraud Complaint Center. Make sure you copy the body of the e-mail you received into the additional information section in the last part of your filing.

3. Fight Back

Did you donate money as directed in an e-mail?

"Normally, organizations don't send you e-mails directly soliciting for money," Pinon says.

If you offered your Social Security number or PIN number, or wired money to an account abroad, you were likely scammed.

Call your bank immediately to cancel any bank accounts involved or to file a dispute on the credit card you used.

You'll also want to call all three of the major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax to let them know you may have been the victim of a credit card scam. Log onto their Web sites:,, and for more information.

4. Be on the Lookout

This is a great reminder to be careful with your personal information on the Internet.

The FBI advises consumers to "always be careful of opening an unsolicited e-mails and to be weary of opening any attachments."

Any time you're donating or purchasing anything on the Net, be sure to use your credit card. That allows you to limit your liability to just $50.

5 . Don't Be Afraid

Millions of dollars have been donated safely for the relief efforts.

Don't let this scam deter you from doing your part. We encourage you to make your donation directly on a charity's Web site or over the phone.

For a list of charities accepting donations for the tsunami, and their legitimate Web sites, log onto or

To make your donation count even more, consider making it through your employer or church if they offer a matching program.  Top of page

Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to

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