Con Watch: Beware of Ukraine-Related Scams

Many of us want to help the people of Ukraine, but crooks are all too ready to take advantage of your compassion.

Bird behind barb wire in front of an Ukrainian flag

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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

As we have seen far too well during the coronavirus pandemic, criminals are quite capable of taking whatever has the public’s attention and turning it into an opportunity to scam people.  Now we are seeing crooks taking advantage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine to fashion a variety of scams.

You may receive phone calls, emails, or text messages seeking contributions to charities that purport to be helping the people of Ukraine. Unfortunately, you can never be sure that the caller is legitimate. Using a technique called “spoofing” a scammer can manipulate your caller ID so that it appears to be coming from a legitimate charity. Emails and text messages can similarly be disguised.

Charities are not subject to the National Do Not Call Registry, so legitimate charities are able to contact you by phone. The problem is that whenever you are get a phone call, you can never be sure as to who is really calling you.

So how do you avoid this scam?

Never provide credit card information over the phone to anyone whom you have not called or in response to an email or text message. Before you give to any charity, you should check out the charity with charitynavigator.org where you can learn whether or not the charity itself is a scam. You can also see how much of the money that a legitimate charity collects actually goes toward its charitable purposes and how much it uses for fund raising and administrative costs. Charity Navigator has a list of specific highly rated charities that they recommend if you wish to assist the people of Ukraine. Among the highly rated charities are Global Giving, Save the Children, and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Charity Navigator has a full list and descriptions of these charities and others to help the people of the Ukraine.

In addition to charity scams, you can expect to receive emails, text messages, and social media posts that purport to provide important information about the Russian invasion. These communications may require you to click on links to obtain the information or videos. Social media has been used legitimately by people in Ukraine to show the world what is really going on there. Unfortunately, social media has also been used by scammers. For instance, on TikTok, a scammer pleaded for donations and showed a livestream of houses in a residential area with the sounds of gunfire, sirens, and people screaming for help in the background. However, a few hours earlier the same TikTok account posted a video of the same street in which cars with British license plates were shown.

Particularly in these days of deep fake video and audio, you can never be sure if what you are seeing on social media is true and accurate. If you want reliable news coverage, stick to trustworthy news sources.

Also be aware of “fake emergency” scams. Similar to the grandparent scam where elderly people are called late at night by crooks posing as their grandchildren who are in dire need of funds due to a phony emergency, we can expect calls from criminals posing as family members stuck in either Russia or Ukraine in need of money to fly home. You can also expect communications from fraudsters posing as American soldiers in need of money. (While they are not fighting in Ukraine, American armed forces have been sent to Eastern Europe.) Taking the time to verify the identity of someone calling can avoid being scammed in this manner.

Finally, not all Ukraine-related scams will appeal to our empathy and generosity. They will also appeal to our greed. Similar to the infamous Nigerian email, we will be seeing emails that appear to come from Ukraine asking for your help in getting funds out of the country, for which you will be highly rewarded. These scams are easy to recognize and avoid, but they still manage to snare the unwary and greedy.

We can all help, but we need to do so carefully.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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