Donors warned to be cautious of scams after mass shootings

Charity watchdogs urge people to protect themselves from possible scams when they seek to donate after tragedies like the Uvalde school shooting.

A resident pays her respects Wednesday at a memorial dedicated to the 19 children and two teachers killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.Brandon Bell / Getty Images

With the Texas attorney general and state lawmakers warning about fraudulent fundraising in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead, charity watchdogs are urging people to protect themselves from possible scams when seeking to donate to victims.

Texas State Sen. Roland Gutierrez said Tuesday on MSNBC that “it’s unfortunate, but there is a lot of fraud on the money that’s being raised for some of these folks in their children’s name.”

Gutierrez said he has reached out to the state attorney general’s office to look into such fraud.

“We just have to make sure that these families are being cared for, that they are getting the resources that they need, and that nobody is trying to defraud them,” he said. 

Laurie Styron, the executive director of CharityWatch, said for people seeking to donate funds after a tragedy, “it’s really important to not just react to a fundraising pitch online” or just any crowdfunding campaign. 

Instead, people should seek out specific organizations with expertise in relevant causes or related charity efforts or, if donating through a crowdfunding campaign, donors should be “absolutely certain that you’re on the official page of the family.”

“It’s very difficult to get your money back if you give it to a scammer,” she said. “And there’s just no way for regulators or watchdogs like us to keep up with the amount of fraud and scam attempts that are out there.”

Styron cautioned that just because something is online doesn't mean it is legitimate.

“There are fake crowdfunding campaigns that pop up all the time. And there’s a lot of copycat crowdfunding campaigns that pop up all the time because people swoop in immediately after a tragedy and try to cash in and then they’re gone as quickly as they arrived,” she said.

Styron asked potential donors to do their own research and consider giving to top-rated charities, and cutting out middlemen by donating directly to charities so the funds are not held by a third-party for transfer at a later date.

Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the creation of a one-stop webpage for donations supporting the victims’ families and the Uvalde community. 

The governor said the OneStar Foundation “will give 100 percent of the donations to the Robb School Memorial Fund” to ensure “immediate financial support is given to those impacted by the horrific tragedy.”

“Funds will be used to cover immediate needs, such as health care expenses, flights and travel for families and loved ones, and funeral expenses, as well as long-term needs to support the community’s recovery,” the governor said.

Last week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton cautioned people to be aware of scammers and protect themselves using steps such as not wiring money; watching out for fake names or phone numbers that scammers may use to disguise their identities; giving through legitimate charitable funding platforms such as GoFundMe that commit to banning fraudsters; and following organizations such as CharityWatch that help donors make informed choices.

After the shooting, donors have raised some $11 million through GoFundMe alone, according to Bloomberg News. 

GoFundMe said in a statement to NBC News that it “created a central, trusted and verified Hub” to make it easier for people to donate to the Uvalde community and victims of the shooting.

“We are honored to enable our generous community and provide a central rallying point for people to support the victims and survivors in Uvalde at this critical time,” GoFundMe said.

The fundraising site said after a tragedy like in Uvalde, its trust and safety team mobilizes to “verify fundraisers and proactively monitor and protect our platform from any form of misuse.” 

GoFundMe said while fraud on the site is rare, through its GoFundMe Giving Guarantee the site guarantees “a full donation refund in the rare case something isn’t right — this is the first and only donor protection guarantee in the fundraising industry.”

Bennett Weiner, the executive vice president and COO of the charity-monitoring BBB Wise Giving Alliance, said some crowdfunding sites have a vetting system before campaigns are posted, but others may have different standards. 

“So you’re really relying on the integrity of whoever posted it as to whether they’re going to follow through with whatever promises they made,” he said.

Another issue is that there is not always accountability for how funds will be used, he said.

For those still seeking to donate, Styron said when she is moved by events happening in the country and the world around her, “my heart is sort of the inspiration for my donation but then I use my head when I actually discern where my money should really go where it can do the most good.”