Avoid these 4 California Wildfire Scams

November 2nd · 6 min read

When disasters strike, scammers prey on your kindness. The United States feels unlike ever before with wildfires raging in the West, hurricanes in the Gulf, and civil unrest. All of this is happening as political tensions rise in the wake of the upcoming Presidential election and a global pandemic continues to claim lives and force businesses to close.

As humans, we all want to help where we can. Unfortunately, scammers are also competing for your money. Amid the California wildfires, they’re active and they have more opportunities than ever. They may use any number of avenues to make contact with potential victims. They create clickbait ads, send emails, make phone calls, send SMS text messages, post on social media, and utilize fake news websites to make contact with their victims.

Here at Guardio, we want to make sure that you know what they’re up to so you can avoid being scammed.

Fake Charities

During times of disaster, scammers create fake charities to prey on those opening their hearts and wallets to offer relief. They might create a fake copy of a website belonging to a well-known charity, create a phony charity of their own, or create “middle-man” websites that allow you to donate to multiple charities from one portal. When using a website created by a scammer, not only will the money you donated go straight to the scammer, but they also have your financial information to use or share as they wish.

California Wildfire CEO Scam

Another way that scammers are targeting the open hearts of those wishing to help the victims of the California wildfires is through CEO scams. In this scam, employees receive an email seeming to come from the CEO of their place of employment. This email wasn’t actually sent by the CEO. Instead, it was sent using an email spoofing tool or the CEO’s email address was compromised. Nonetheless, the email reaches the company employees without triggering security alerts because the email comes from within the company.

These emails request that employees donate to help those involved in the California wildfires. Many even offer incentives, like additional vacation days, prizes for the department who donates the most, or a company wide picnic if the donation goal is met. This incentivizes employees who trust their CEO to donate their own money or raise money outside of work to contribute under the company name.The problem is that when donating money using the website provided in the “CEO’s” email, the funds are actually going to the scammer behind the initial email. This scam works particularly well because of our trust and desire to impress our CEOs.

Fake Offers of State or Federal Aid

During times of disaster, it’s common for those affected to receive relief aid. It’s important to know that federal workers do not solicit or accept money from those they’re aiding. FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) do not charge applicants for disaster assistance or for help completing the associated applications. Scam artists are found in the wake of most major disasters requesting cash deposits and advance payments. Don’t fall for these scam attempts.

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Home Rebuilding Scams

When it comes time to rebuild after a disaster, contractors seem to come out of the woodwork. In the contracting industry, these are referred to as “storm chasers”. When local contractors are likely to be overwhelmed with work, like in times following wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, storm chasers travel to the affected area to offer their services. Seeking to rebuild and get back into their homes as quickly as possible, locals utilize these out of state storm chasers without much research.

The problem with these storm chasers is that many change their business names as they go from one state to the next to avoid having negative reviews impact their future business. Once the disaster has ended, if a homeowner has a problem with the completed work, the storm chasers are long gone and unreachable for repairs. In some cases, people posing as contractors offer an attractive quote, collect the deposit under the guise that it’s being used to purchase needed supplies and then disappear altogether.

Protect Yourself From California Wildfire Scams

One of the most important things you can do to avoid being scammed is to stay informed. By reading this article and by staying up to date on other Guardio articles, you’re already a step ahead. Being informed helps you pick up on red flags and slow down enough to evaluate a situation before you jump off the diving board into a scam attempt. Here are some tips to avoid falling victim to the scams surrounding the California wildfires.

Never let anyone rush you into donating. This is a tactic that scammers use to trick you into ignoring red flags. Yes, people in California and surrounding states need your help, but if you rush through a transaction that turns out to be a scam, they’ll never see those funds. Taking the time to research a charity is far more important than rushing to send donations blindly.

Research the organization before donating. Add the word “scam,” “fraud,” or “complaint” after the name of the organization as you search to see if anyone else has experienced problems when donating through the organization.

Know the details. A good charity will provide you with a wealth of valuable information. They’ll go into detail about how your donation will be used and exactly where it is being sent. How much of your donation is being sent to the cause and how much is being held for administrative fees, processing fees, or general charity funds? What length of time will it take for your donation to reach its intended destination? These are all questions that should be answered on a charity website and you should review that information to determine if that charity is one you want to support.

Don’t assume a charity is real because a friend or coworker shared it. You never know if they took the time to research the charity beforehand. Scammers use names that sound similar to real charities and take the time to create websites that look real. They know what they’re doing and they’re very good at tricking people into believing they’re legitimate.

Find out if the charity is registered with your state. Legitimate charities are required to register with the state for accountability. You can check your state’s charity regulator to see if the one you’re considering is listed. If it isn’t registered, consider donating elsewhere.

Don’t donate by phone unless you initiated the call. Technology makes it simple to spoof phone numbers for free and with little effort. What might appear to be a phone call from a well-known charity or one you’ve done business with in the past may not be who you think it actually is. Instead, if you want to give to them by phone, hang up and call them back using the official phone number shown on the official website. Don’t use the phone number the caller provided.

Never donate by wire transfer or gift cards. Legitimate charities will never ask you to pay by wire transfer or gift cards. They accept credit and debit cards, Paypal, and checks. Scammers request wire transfers and gift cards because once you’ve sent the money, they know you can’t retrieve it, leaving them with your hard-earned money.

Make sure your check is mailed to the right address. A quick online search will provide you with the official mailing address of an official charity. Scammers who contact you by phone or email can provide you with any address they want. If you already mailed your check to the wrong location, retrieving your money afterward may not be possible.

Research contractors before paying a deposit. All states require that contractors are licensed in the state where they’re doing business. They are then listed in a state database searchable by the general public who can then see their status, liability insurance information, and any complaints that may have been received. Always use a licensed contractor and look up their qualifications on the state website to ensure that their licensing hasn’t been revoked. For the state of California, this information can be found at https://www.cslb.ca.gov/onlineservices/checklicenseII/checklicense.aspx

Review your bank statements. Look for the donation transaction to ensure that it matches the charity of your choice. If you intended to make a one-time donation, make sure that the donation wasn't entered as a recurring donation instead, by checking your bank statements for the next couple of months afterward.

Browse with protection. Browser protection tools block malicious websites trying to steal your personal information and let you know when a website is too new to be trusted. In the case of many fake charities, their websites were only created recently, but you might not otherwise know without that important alert.

Use a data breach monitoring tool. It can be tough to identify real charities from those created by scammers. If you inadvertently provided your information to a scammer or if a legitimate charity experiences a data breach, it's important to know about it immediately so you can take action to secure your accounts and avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.

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