Scammers target those wanting to help Gatlinburg fire victims

NASHVILLE (WATE) – It’s not unusual for the “Volunteer State” to help others, but scammers are profiting from people’s good nature.

Project 615, a philanthropic t-shirt & apparel company based in Nashville, said they are investigating a fake website claiming to sell their t-shirt and saying the money is going back to Gatlinburg fire victims. Derek Evans, the co-founder and director of operations of Project 615, said several of their customers alerted them to the fake site, which is not only claiming to sell their shirts, but is also selling colors and styles of t-shirts they do not offer.

The site claiming to sell the t-shirts went under the name “Smokies strong,” with a lowercase ‘s’ in strong. “Smokies Strong” with an upper case ‘S’ said the page was posing as their Facebook page.

The social media site also used a link redirect which did not go to Project 615’s site. Users were able to get the fake page taken down, but Evans is encouraging anyone who would like to purchase the t-shirt to go directly to their website and telling people to be on the look-out for more fake sites popping up.

“We are trying to just let people know that it is not us,” said Evans. He said luckily, they have had a lot of their customers get the word out about the fake company on social media.

Project 615 created the “Heart for the Smokies” t-shirt after learning of the wildfires in East Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains region. The company says 100 percent of the profits from the sale of the shirts go directly to the Gatlinburg Relief Fund.

“We just have watched the news and have seen different people lost not only their homes, but also their friends and relatives and we just thought we had to do something to help,” said Evans. “We’re a company that celebrates all of the good of Tennessee and this is the least we can do.”

Since starting the campaign, Evans said they have raised over $35,000 for the Gatlinburg Relief Fund. He said they sold out of the shirts at their East Nashville location, but are selling t-shirts online.

“We’ve not really had that happen to us, but this is probably one of the bigger campaigns we have been able to do for a certain situation,” said Evans. “It has been a great campaign for us to be able to give back. It is somewhat viral. It is not really surprising that somebody out there is waiting to ride the coat tails of the people that are really trying to do the right thing.”

Buzzfeed reports on similar incidents involving t-shirts sold to support Native Americans protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline. They said they have identified more than 60 Facebook pages with more than 6 million fans that are generating money by selling “stolen No DAPL T-shirt designs” and by “driving traffic to dubious clickbait websites.”

Community members are also urging people to report the sites to Facebook. The platform relies on community feedback to help regulate content.

“It takes just a few clicks to report these and every report really does help to escalate the matter to Facebook,” said Helen Todd, CEO of social media consulting firm Sociality Squared.

Todd said helping to report scams on Facebook, whether it is a post or a page, prevents people from endangering their computers, getting internet viruses. She says the reports remain in the Facebook platform.

How to spot a scam

These days, charities and fundraisers (groups that solicit funds on behalf of organizations) use the phone, face-to-face contact, email, the internet (including social networking sites), and mobile devices to solicit and obtain donations. Naturally, scammers use these same methods to take advantage of your goodwill. Regardless of how they reach you, avoid any charity or fundraiser that:

  • Refuses 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.
  • Uses high-pressure tactics like trying to get you to donate immediately, without giving you time to think about it and do your research.
  • 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.
  • Guarantees sweepstakes winnings in exchange for a contribution. By law, you never have to give a donation to be eligible to win a sweepstakes

Charity checklist

Take the following precautions to make sure your donation benefits the people and organizations you want to help.

  • Ask for detailed information about the charity, including name, address, and telephone number.
  • Get the exact name of the organization and do some research. Searching the name of the organization online — especially with the word “complaint(s)” or “scam”— is one way to learn about its reputation.
  • Call the charity. Find out if the organization is aware of the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name. The organization’s development staff should be able to help you.
  • Find out if the charity or fundraiser must be registered in your state by contacting the National Association of State Charity Officials.
  • Check if the charity is trustworthy by contacting the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, or GuideStar.
  • Ask if the caller is a paid fundraiser. If so, ask:
    • The name of the charity they represent
    • The percentage of your donation that will go to the charity
    • How much will go to the actual cause to which you’re donating
    • How much will go to the fundraiser
  • Keep a record of your donations.
  • Make an annual donation plan. That way, you can decide which causes to support and which reputable charities should receive your donations.
  • Visit this Internal Revenue Service (IRS) webpage to find out which organizations are eligible to receive tax deductible contributions.
  • Know the difference between “tax exempt” and “tax deductible.” Tax exempt means the organization doesn’t have to pay taxes. Tax deductible means you can deduct your contribution on your federal income tax return.
  • Never send cash donations. For security and tax purposes, it’s best to pay by check — made payable to the charity — or by credit card.
  • Never wire money to someone claiming to be a charity. Scammers often request donations to be wired because wiring money is like sending cash: once you send it, you can’t get it back.
  • Do not provide your credit or check card number, bank account number or any personal information until you’ve thoroughly researched the charity.
  • Be wary of charities that spring up too suddenly in response to current events and natural disasters. Even if they are legitimate, they probably don’t have the infrastructure to get the donations to the affected area or people.
  • If a donation request comes from a group claiming to help your local community (for example, local police or firefighters), ask the local agency if they have heard of the group and are getting financial support.
  • What about texting? If you text to donate, the charge will show up on your mobile phone bill. If you’ve asked your mobile phone provider to block premium text messages — texts that cost extra — then you won’t be able to donate this way.

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