Our Opinion: Help Harvey victims without becoming a victim of fraud

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When a catastrophe strikes — no matter where in this country — the first reflex on the part of many Americans is to ask, "What can I do to help?" Geographical and political differences fade into irrelevance as images of human suffering overwhelm regionalism and self-interest.

Here in Massachusetts, our instinct is to reach out and aid our Texas brethren; the memories of Sandy's ravages remain fresh enough to inspire in us the old expression, "There but for the grace of God go I." Upon reflection, we are capable of suppressing the resentments about the insensitivity shown toward the Bay State and the rest of the Northeast when Sandy hit by a Texas congressional delegation now demanding federal assistance; Harvey's victims are human beings in need.

Unfortunately, the charitable instinct can become prey to the criminal mentality, and wherever there are those willing to open their wallets, there is someone ready to fraudulently divert funds given in the spirit of compassion. We see it after every disaster, especially since would-be helpers are told that giving money to aid organizations is the most effective way to help people quickly, rather than donations in kind or of labor — both of which can often gum up the important work of rescue and rebuilding.

In this internet age, it is remarkably easy to set up a GoFundMe site, for example, purporting to be a legitimate aid organization. Thanks to readily-available software, official-looking web pages good enough to fool the most savvy potential donors can be designed by non-professionals.

It's enough of a problem that government officials like state Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield have felt it necessary to warn their constituents: "Folks — PLEASE, please please," she wrote in a Facebook post last Wednesday, "Do NOT use GoFundMe sites to contribute to Harvey victims. You should only use a GoFundMe created by someone you actually, personally know. Sadly, there will be so many scams related to this disaster — we all have to carefully choose where to send our donations so that they help those who really need it."

The presence of such scams, however, need not discourage those who wish to contribute what they can to the aid effort. It simply requires prudence, judgment and a healthy amount of skepticism. Probably the safest route is to give via main-line, tried-and-true organizations like the American Red Cross, which has already posted a link to help Harvey victims: http://www.redcross.org/local/texas/gulf-coast/disaster-response. Donating via the ARC's site is even easier than ordering merchandise online.

Harvey has been described as a oncee-in-a-thousand-years event based on historic records, similar to descriptions made 12 years ago in reference to Hurricane Katrina. Those records don't apply anymore in the age of climate change and global warming. Disaster prevention is obviously preferable to disaster reaction, which won't happen until ideology-based climate change denial in government circles gives way to the clear facts of science.

It will be months, even years, according to the experts, before all the people of Texas and Louisiana will be able to resume normal lives. There is no reason, however, why Harvey should claim other victims through fraud — as long as we are careful.


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