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Earthquake Relief Scams & How to Avoid Them

Image of a word “scam alert” to protect people from earthquake relief scams

The tragic 2023 earthquakes in Syria and Turkey were absolutely devastating. All around the globe, people watched heart wrenching video footage of collapsed buildings, desperate searches for survivors, and grieving families. 

Many of us feel the need to do something–anything!–when disaster strikes. When it is far away, we often turn to our wallets to offer what we can. Making a donation to a relief organization is one of the most common reactions to a natural disaster like an earthquake.

Unfortunately, scammers know this. These scammers are waiting to take advantage of the compassion of other people. If they can redirect those donations to their own pockets, they will! 

When you want to donate money after a natural disaster like an earthquake, it is so important that you avoid these scams and only donate to reputable organizations that will use your money to help people.

A woman handing out food relief as part of earthquake relief

How Does an Earthquake Relief Scam Work?

Opportunistic crisis profiteers will use a number of strategies to take advantage of sympathetic donors. Earthquake relief scams are just one of many kinds of charity scams. 

Let’s take a look at some of those strategies and how they work. That way, you can learn how to avoid them.

Social Media Images & Videos

Anyone can make a social media post about any topic, from any account they own or manage.

Just like you can create a social media page for yourself, your company, your religious institution, your club, or anything else, scammers can easily create a page to use for their fraudulent behavior. 

These accounts are getting more and more sophisticated, too. For example, scammers will create an innocent-looking page that gets lots of engagement from people. Then they will change the content of the page to something that supports their scam. 

It is hard to recognize as a scam page because it looks like a legitimate account with many likes, comments, and shares!

To trick people into donating to a false cause, here’s what a scammer will do: 

  • Create a new social media account or use an existing one
  • Find a picture or video of the disaster–although they will just as often use a provocative image from a different catastrophe
  • Edit the image to include a link to a CashApp, Venmo, PayPal or other donation option
  • Post the image or video, claiming to be raising donations for the victims and survivors of the earthquake

It’s as simple as that, and it earns scammers unthinkable amounts of money, all of which could have gone to real victims in need of aid. 

AI-Generated Content

One of the newer strategies available to scammers is the use of AI-generated images. 

After the Turkey-Syria earthquake, countless posts appeared on Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok that included AI-generated images that purported to be from the earthquake relief. 

Most of these images contained the following:

  • A uniformed firefighter or rescue worker holding a very young child
  • Scenes of rubble and fire in the background
  • National symbols like flags
  • Common AI mistakes, like too many fingers or an unclear background

Email & Text Scams

Not all scams are conducted through social media. Email and text messages are used to trick you into clicking on phishing links and other scams. 

In 2016, the FTC issued a statement, warning:

“The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has released an alert on email scams that cite the recent earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan. The scam emails may contain links or attachments that direct users to phishing or malware-infected websites. Donation requests from fraudulent charitable organizations commonly appear after major natural disasters.”

Fraudulent Fundraising Pages

Sometimes, scammers will create a fraudulent GoFundMe page or other fundraising account and ask for money. 

In the case of an earthquake scam, the GoFundMe might look like an individual who is raising money and promises to donate that money to charity. The same user could also use Facebook’s fundraising feature or any other crowdfunding platform. 

If you suspect a GoFundMe page of being fraudulent, you can report it directly to the platform

Typically, fraudulent fundraisers are shut down, and donors are reimbursed. But that can’t happen unless the platform identifies the fundraiser as invalid. In this situation, the scammer hopes that no one notices the fraud and they can get away with pocketing whatever money was donated. 

Spoofing Legitimate Organizations

When scammers want to increase their chances of getting donations, they will spoof a real organization or make up one that sounds legitimate. 

These imitators rely on the fact that people will just assume that the account is legitimate. 

Red Flags: 

  • The page isn’t verified. Look for the verification symbol next to the account’s name. This is easy to check on TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram, but Twitter’s changes to its verification process may make it easier for fake accounts to get verified. 
  • The page was just created. For example, on Twitter and Facebook, you can check to see when the page was created. A brand new account is a big red flag that it’s a scam page.
  • There are typos, errors, or strange characters in the name. Scammers will often create a page that looks ALMOST like the actual page. Think of “United-Way” instead of “United Way.”
  • The page has very few followers. Look at the number of followers and ask yourself if that number makes sense. World Vision, for example, is a religious nonprofit that raises funds for earthquake relief. They have 244,000 Facebook followers and 1 million Twitter followers. If you encounter a page called “World-Vision” and it has only 30 followers, it may be a sign of an earthquake relief scam.
A mobile phone that displays donation for an earthquake relief fundraiser

How to Avoid Falling for Earthquake Relief Scams

The instinct to help other people is a good one–and you should definitely give if you feel like it’s the best thing for you to do!

You just want to make sure that you double and triple-check everything to ensure that you are giving your money to a real organization, not someone who is scamming you. 

Being a savvy donor means taking the following simple steps: 

  • Don’t give to random accounts or fundraisers that you have never heard of. 
  • Confirm that the fundraiser is associated with a legitimate organization. 
  • Research the organization to make sure you are happy with how it uses donated funds. 

There are plenty of worthy earthquake relief funds and organizations. Understanding how to identify which are going to help earthquake victims and which are simply out to take your money is the first step in making sure your donation is going where it should.

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