BBB Offers Donation Advice in Wake of Northern California Wildfires

Wildfires are currently raging through Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties. Wine country communities are suffering, and need assistance. Unfortunately, scammers and unethical organizations often use times of tragedy to prey on victims and on the public’s generosity.

Although no scams related to the current wildfires have been reported so far, BBB has received reports of fraudulent charities soliciting donations and crowdfunding appeals that don’t actually benefit victims after past tragedies. Those affected by the fires should also be on the lookout for price gouging of hotels and other goods and services. If you encounter a scam or unethical business, report it to your BBB.

The following BBB tips will help you donate wisely to those affected by the devastating Northern California fires:

  • Be cautious when giving online. Be cautious about online giving, especially in response to spam messages, emails, and social media pages that claim to link to a relief organization. If you want to give to a charity involved in relief efforts, go directly to the charity’s website.
  • Rely on expert opinion when it comes to evaluating a charity. Be cautious when relying on third-party recommendations such as bloggers or other websites, as they may not have fully researched the relief organizations they list. The public can go to give.orgto research charities and relief organizations and verify that they are accredited by BBB and meet its 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.
  • Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations will assist relief victims. Despite what an organization might claim, charities have fund raising and administrative costs. Even a credit card donation will involve, at a minimum, a processing fee. If a charity claims 100 percent of collected funds will be assisting fire victims, the truth is that the organization is still probably incurring fund raising and administrative expenses.  It may use some of its other funds to pay these costs, but the expenses will still be incurred.
  • Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the impacted areas. Unless the charity already has staff in the affected areas, it may be difficult to bring in new aid workers to provide assistance quickly.  See if the charity’s website clearly describes what the charity can do to address immediate needs.
  • Find out if the charity is providing direct aid or raising money for other groups. Some charities may be raising money to pass along to relief organizations.  If so, you may want to consider “avoiding the middleman” and giving directly to those that have a presence in the region. Or, at a minimum, check out the ultimate recipients of these donations to see whether they are equipped to provide aid effectively.
  • Gifts of clothing, food or other in-kind donations. In-kind drives for food and clothing, while well intentioned, may not necessarily be the quickest way to help those in need – unless the organization has the staff and infrastructure to distribute such aid properly. Ask the charity about its transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those who are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.
  • A word on crowdfunding sites. Crowdfunding is a method of raising money from a large group of people, typically via the Internet. If you’re thinking about donating to a fire relief appeal on a crowdfunding site, make sure to ask questions. If the organizer is not responsive or not willing to offer a lot of detail, that is a red flag. BBB Wise Giving Alliance notes that crowdfunding websites call for varying degrees of information in order for appeals to be set up, and may take fund raising pages down when questions are raised that can’t be substantiated. However, those requirements alone won’t prevent all fraud. If you decide to contribute via crowdfunding, it is probably best to give to people who you personally know that have posted requests for assistance. For more tips on crowdfunding, check out this Wise Giving Wednesday Crowdfunding website campaigns can do a lot of good, and raise a lot of money, but make sure you do your homework before contributing.

For many communities, recovery will be a long-term activity that can take many months or years to accomplish, depending on the extent of the damage. Recovery efforts may not begin until the fires have been contained, and those concerned about helping communities bounce back will have many opportunities to help. If you encounter any scams, make sure to report them to BBB Scam Tracker at to help warn others.

Rebecca is the Communications Supervisor for BBB serving the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern Coastal California. She works to advance BBB’s vision of an ethical marketplace where buyers and sellers can trust each other. She does this by developing content such as blog posts, press releases, newspaper columns, and PSAs to educate businesses and consumers. Rebecca also represents BBB at community events.

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Posted in Consumer Tips, Consumer/Business Services, Scams

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