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Bushfire scams: Here’s what you need to watch out for

Jessica Yun
Piles of donated clothes; people bring in donations for bushfire victims.
Donations have flooded in for bushfire victims – but not all fundraiser platforms are legitimate. (Source: AAP)

People eager to make a donation to support organisations helping out with bushfire recovery efforts have been urged to exercise caution.

The consumer watchdog has warned about the dangers of bushfire-related scams that have been circulating in the wake of the devastating fires that have destroyed hundreds of homes and razed millions of hectares of bushland.

“There are currently a wide range of appeals raising funds for people and animals affected by the bushfires. Unfortunately, some of these are scams,” the ACCC said in a recent statement.

The ACCC has received 47 reports of bushfire-related scams since September 2019, but the actual number may actually be higher as people do not realise they’ve been the victim of a scam, SBS reported.

As a result, the watchdog has set up a hotline exclusively for bushfire-related scams as of yesterday, available on 1300 795 995.

The NSW Police Force has said it has received reports about “allegedly fraudulent crowd-funding pages relating to bushfire victims and relief efforts”.

“Police are urging the public to be vigilant when donating money and, if you are unsure, consider donating to registered organisations involved in bushfire-recovery efforts,” they said in a statement.

The scams we’ve seen so far

Father and son Robert and Patrick Salway died in the New Year’s Eve fires on NSW’s South Coast, and in less than a day, a fake fundraising campaign had been set up, the ABC reported.

More than $4,000 had been raised before it was shut down, with Dean Hancock, the husband of Robert’s daughter Kellie-Anne, describing the scam as “absolutely f***ing despicable”.

In mid-December, Lithgow police warned the local community that a male was knocking on residents’ doors impersonating a Rural Fire Service officer, and was even wearing an RFS uniform to appear legitimate.

On Christmas Eve, SA police advised of a scam where some members of the public were receiving calls from someone claiming to be from the bank.

The scammer told victims that they would be provided with disaster relief funds and would need bank details to deposit money into their accounts.

What scammers are doing

Before making a donation, this is what you need to know to prevent your money from falling into the wrong hands:

  • Scammers are posing as legitimate well-known charities and impersonating people hit by the bushfires;

  • Scammers are cold-calling, direct messaging and making fake websites and pages on social media to raise – and steal – funds;

What you should do to protect yourself

  • If you’re donating to a charity or not-for-profit organisation, check that it’s registered by looking them up on the Australia Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Charity Register;

  • If you’re not sure bout the legitimacy of a fundraising page on a platform that doesn’t verify the fundraiser, or doesn’t guarantee your money back if the page turns out to be a fake, avoid it;

  • Beware of crowdfunding requests – they can be fake, and come from a scammer. Check the funding platform’s terms and conditions to make sure you’re dealing with an official organisation;

  • If you think you’ve given your money to a scammer, get in touch with your bank immediately

Where you can donate

If you’re looking to donate to legitimate fire agencies, not-for-profit organisations or charities that are helping out with bushfire recovery efforts, consider donating to the NSW RFS, Red Cross, Salvation Army and a number of other legitimate institutions.

If you’re looking to support injured wildlife, these are some of the zoos, animal hospitals and wildlife rescue services that have been tending to the singed creatures.

If you don’t have money to give, there are other ways you can help out.

Several retailers have also pledged their proceeds to assist bushfire relief efforts.

To directly help out the businesses that have been hit by fires, you can find out which businesses need all the patronage they can get through the @spendwiththem Instagram account, an initiative of Australian mining engineer and burns survivor Turia Pitt.

In the long-term, you can boost the local economies of bushfire-devastated areas that depend on tourism by visiting them, shopping with them and using their services.

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