JACKSON — As organizations fundraise for Maui relief efforts following wildfire destruction, advocates are warning people to beware of scammers masquerading as charitable organizations.
“Scammers really do look at what’s happening in the news,” said Laura Baker, director of Cyber Wyoming. “They’re going to fundraise for Maui but the funds will never go there.”
Cyber Wyoming coordinates cybersecurity outreach programs for citizens and businesses.
Colleen Tressler, of the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Consumer and Business Education, told CBS News the same — that bad actors are seeking donations through phone calls and direct messages on social media. One Maui resident reported a scammer posing as “DNA Services,” seeking a sample to help with identification efforts.
Donate only to charities you trust, the FTC warns, and verify the legitimacy of a nonprofit through a site like Charity Navigator.
“We want people to know that whenever there is a natural disaster, scammers are quick to follow,” Tressler told CBS. “We really recommend that you pay by credit card, which gives you a lot more consumer protections.”
Criminals often seek payment in cash, gift cards, wire transfers or cryptocurrency. Baker said that in any situation, beware of anyone rushing you to make a payment.
The Justice Department stated that in the past, fraudsters looking to cash in on natural disasters have posed not only as fake charities but also as insurance companies, government officials and nonexistent businesses promising to aid in recovery efforts.
While Baker hasn’t heard of any Wyomingites yet contacted by fake Maui fundraisers, residents have been asked to buy gift cards by scammers masquerading as friends or co-workers.
“The person that reported this said that the email address looked very much like his co-worker’s personal email address,” Baker said.
Businesses should establish an office-wide passcode or phrase so that when you’re contacted by something that seems phish-y, you can simply ask for the company passphrase. If they don’t know it, it’s a scam.
Don’t publish the passcode on social media and change it every so often, Baker advised.
As the elderly are increasingly targeted, Baker suggested establishing a family passcode. Her caveat: Don’t use your favorite sports team because scammers may easily find that online.
Baker said bad actors will target grandparents, asking for money to bail grandkids out of jail.
As artificial intelligence technology advances, scammers can now clone voices using audio snippets taken from social media. Parents and grandparents have received faked calls of their loved ones screaming, and were then asked for ransom money.
“We have a family password,” Baker said. “If they don’t know the family password, it just takes all the stress out of it right there. You can make it an uncommon nickname or an inside family joke.”
In the event of a distressing call, hang up and call your loved one directly. Also ask questions; legitimate authorities like law enforcement will understand your desire to fact-check. Hackers, on the other hand, will get irritated.
“Training yourself that it’s okay to ask questions is a really good thing to do,” Baker said.
At the Cyber Cheyenne conference last week, an annual one-day event focused on cybersecurity, Baker said one helpful tip she learned is to review your email forwarding rules once a month.
“[Scammers] probably put in a rule to copy every email that you receive and forward it on to somebody else,” Baker said.
Check your Amazon mailing address once in a while, too.
“If you don’t recognize the mailing address, you should just delete it and immediately change your Amazon password,” Baker said.
Another easy step you can take to be prepared? Talk about the scams you see. As the old adage goes, knowledge is power. Some companies devote five minutes every Friday to debriefing scams people saw that week, Baker said.
“There’s been studies that prior knowledge of scams and tactics will help decrease engagement with the scammer thus decreasing the amount of money that’s lost,” Baker said. “The more information we share, the more we protect our loved ones and our family and friends.”
This story was published on August 28, 2023.