The federal government sent another ringing message to charity scammers thinking about taking advantage of public goodwill during times of disaster: you scam, you serve.
Two Houston brothers each were sentenced last month to more than eight years for wire fraud and aggravated identity theft as a result of fraudulently operating a Web site that claimed to raise money on behalf of the Salvation Army for Hurricane Katrina victims. The fraudulent Web site, prosecutors said, collected more than $48,000 before anyone caught on.
U.S. District Judge David Hittner sentenced Steven Stephens, 24, to serve a total of 111 months. Bartholomew Stephens, 27, will serve a total of 105 months. A jury convicted the pair after a four-day trial in June.
The Stephens case is just one example of the more than 2,400 Katrina relief Web sites believed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to be fraudulent.
More recently, as Southern California burned this past October criminals began setting up bogus Web sites and soliciting donations. According to the FBI, in the days following the California wildfires fraudsters flooded the Internet with fake charity sites.
“It’s a challenge,” Melissa Temme, spokesman for the Salvation Army in Washington, D.C., said of abating Internet scams. “We try to stay in front of it with our policies and procedures, because of course what’s most important to us is not only our efficiency in how we use the donors’ dollars…but also that we are cognizant of what can happen and that we are in front of that in trying to keep it from happening.”
Temme said the FBI contacted the Army after a donor tipped the agency to the fraudulent Web site, http://www.salvationarmyonline.org. “Something seemed off,” said Temme, “particularly with the PayPal aspect.” According to Temme, the Army doesn’t accept donations via PayPal; instead, the charity’s international policy holds that all online donations, regardless of where they originate, go through the Salvation Army International Trustee Company in London.
To abate future Internet scams, Temme said the charity is in the process of moving to a more logical URL strategy. For instance, the URLs in the U.S. would all begin with “salvationarmyusa.org,” followed by a slash and the name of the city in which the unit resides.
Some charities go so far as to buy up as many Internet domain names as possible, leaving scammers with fewer options. The Army abandoned this practice after “it became evident fairly quickly that both financially and logistically, that was going to be a very difficult task,” said Temme.
Another factor that has become an issue in the sector is charities allowing their domain names to expire, making them more likely to be snatched up by scammers in what is called “domain tasting.” Most often domains expire without the charities’ knowledge. Go to protectyour.org for more information.
This article is from NPT Weekly, a publication of The NonProfit Times.
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