Destroyed vehicles lie in the rubble outside the Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Okla., on Tuesday.
For many, it's impossible to view the heartbreaking stories coming out of Oklahoma and not feel an overwhelming urge to do something. But following your first impulse to help could just lead to more heartbreak, as many charitable givers often fall prey to scams in the wake of national tragedies.
Authorities are warning would-be donors to think carefully before they donate, and before they click.
"There is always a high probability for con-artists or 'travelers' to pop-up in the state following a storm, pushing quick-fix repair schemes and charity scams," Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in a press release. He urged Oklahomans to stay alert.
Scam artists crawl out of the woodwork only hours after the first pictures of death and destruction emerge. Like clockwork, spam emails, fake Facebook pages, telemarketing phone calls — even full-fledged websites that accept credit cards — pop up, all claiming falsely that they are collecting money for victims. Virus writers also get into the act, sending around booby-trapped emails that appear to come from charities, but are designed to invade victims' computers.
Pruitt said people around the country should donate to "reputable" organizations such as the Salvation Army or Red Cross. "The first scam we typically see after devastation like this is charity fraud,” he said
Pruitt also said his department has already sent 30 investigators into the tornado-ravaged area to stop local scams, fraud and price gouging.
For a detailed list of ways to help Oklahoma victims, visit NBC News' How to Help page.
Attorneys general in several other states, from Washington to South Carolina, have also issued charity fraud warnings.
Even consumers who wouldn't normally fall for scams are at risk in the aftermath of major disasters because the overwhelming sadness of the events, and the urgency of the need, can override a giver's natural sense of skepticism. The same urgency force is at play whenever a scam artist insists that a supposedly great deal is only available for a short time.
Federal Trade Commission spokesman Frank Dorman said he didn't believe his agency had received any complaints about Oklahoma-related scams yet, but that's not unusual: victims wouldn't yet realize they'd been scammed, he said.
The agency does offer an extensive set of tips for evaluating charities.
Consumers should beware anyone who:
- Uses high-pressure tactics like trying to get you to donate immediately, without giving you time to think about it and do your research.
- Refusing to provide detailed information about its identity, mission, costs and how the donation will be used.
- Won't provide proof that a contribution is tax deductible.
- Uses a name that closely resembles that of a better-known, reputable organization.
- Thanks you for a pledge you don’t remember making.
- Asks for donations in cash or asks you to wire money.
- Offers to send a courier or overnight delivery service to collect the donation immediately.