If you want to help people suffering from the war in Ukraine, there are plenty of worthwhile causes and charities accepting donations. But experts warn that there are also plenty of Ukraine-related scams targeting consumers that span fundraising, social media, cryptocurrency and even dating.
Here’s a look at several types of scams aiming to profit off of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The fundraising realm is a popular area for scammers looking to take advantage of the Ukraine crisis. “As we have seen far too well during the coronavirus pandemic, scammers are quite capable of taking whatever is happening in society and turning it into an opportunity to scam people,” says Steve Weisman, a senior lecturer in law, taxation and financial planning at Bentley University who runs the website Scamicide.com.
Weisman says that even if you’ve signed up for the federal Do Not Call List, legitimate charities are still able to call you. “The problem is that whenever you get a phone call, you can never be sure as to who is really calling you – so you may be contacted either by a fake charity or a scammer posing as a legitimate charity,” Weisman says.
The best way to avoid being scammed by a fake charity is to decline to donate money during a phone solicitation, Weisman says. That won’t mean a legitimate charity is out of luck. If you like the sound of the charity, just hang up and initiate the payment yourself through the charity’s website after researching it.
Of course, fake fundraisers don’t just target people via phone, email or text. They also set up fake charity websites.
Brad Hong, virtual chief information security officer at cybersecurity startup Horizon3, says reports have shown that there are thousands of Ukrainian-related domains that were registered shortly after the war began. Some of them may be genuine attempts to fundraise. Many are surely not.
“The best way to avoid the scams is to donate to reputable charities instead any self-proclaimed donation websites,” Hong says.
Hong cites a few causes that people might want to consider giving to:
Weisman says romance scams, which have always been a problem, dramatically increased during the pandemic.
“Now scammers can be expected to be on dating websites and social media, using a knowledge of psychology that (Sigmund) Freud would have envied, to lure unsuspecting people into thinking they have found true love with a Ukrainian who, not long after the relationship deepens, has an emergency need for funds to be sent to him or her,” Weisman says.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t converse with someone from Ukraine on a dating site. It may well be a real person trying to make a connection. But as a guideline, don’t send money to a stranger, even if you think you know them online.
Cryptocurrency scams have been on the rise for years, so it’s no surprise that reports of Ukraine crypto scams are circulating. The Better Business Bureau’s 2021 Scam Tracker Risk Report found that scams related to cryptocurrency jumped from the seventh-riskiest type of scam in 2020 to the second-riskiest in 2021.
Brittany Allen, a trust and safety architect at fraud prevention company Sift, says that she and colleagues have been seeing con artists posing as Ukrainians in need of donations, requesting payment in cryptocurrency and pocketing the payment.
“Another type of scam we are seeing is fraudsters posing as crypto exchanges themselves, claiming they are collecting donations in the form of cryptocurrency for the people of Ukraine,” Allen says.
But you don’t have to rule out giving to a charity with cryptocurrency, Weisman says. “A number of legitimate charities have been soliciting donations of cryptocurrencies to help the people of Ukraine devastated by the Russian invasion,” he says. “Even the Ukrainian government itself has been seeking donations of cryptocurrencies to help purchase military equipment, medical supplies and other necessary items.”
Ukraine’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, Kuna, is accepting donations of Bitcoin, Ethereum, Tether, Litecoin, Dogecoin and many other cryptocurrencies. To date, millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency donations have been raised by the Ukrainian government, says Weisman.
But the scammers are definitely lurking. In the early days of the war, Weisman says con artists posing as Ukrainian officials set up a bogus cryptocurrency called Peaceful World, which they sold on the Uniswap platform. People donated more than $50 million before the phony cryptocurrency was unmasked as a scam.
“A big red flag for consumers as they assess the legitimacy of a Ukrainian relief effort is the requirement to submit your donation in cryptocurrency only,” Allen says. “Legitimate donation sites will offer the ability to also pay in more universally accepted currencies and methods like credit cards. Importantly, once a transaction is made in crypto, the sender has little recourse to receive a refund – these transactions are irreversible – so make sure that if you do donate in crypto, you’ve done your research to validate the recipient.”
Using the Ukraine invasion as a pretext, scammers can find you through social media. That’s probably no surprise. But they can trick you in surprising ways.
You know to be wary of a weird and unfamiliar email or text, especially one asking you to click on a link, but it can be trickier when you’re on social media.
“Never click on links from sources that you have not verified as legitimate. TikTok in particular has been used extensively during the war,” Weisman says. “While many of the posts are legitimate, many others are not, including one that showed a street lined with cars while screams and the sound of gunfire filled the air. The video purported to come from Ukraine and asked for donations. However, if you looked carefully at the video, you would notice that the license plates on the cars were from the UK.”
Weisman adds that if you want news and information about the war in Ukraine, “the best thing to do is to limit your sources to respected, legitimate news sources with which you are familiar rather than rely on social media that may not be reliable and could be merely an attempt to lure you into clicking on infected links.”
Also be careful about links and QR codes to personal Venmo accounts of Ukranians in need, says T. Frank Downs, senior director of proactive services at BlueVoyant, a cybersecurity services company.
Some actual Ukrainians may be doing this, but Downs says, “One of the biggest scams emerging in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is Venmo theft.”
So before sending anyone money through Venmo, vet the person thoroughly first, and even then, it’s probably better to not send money.
“The best way individuals can avoid being scammed is by not donating to any organization or individual through third-party payment apps, such as Venmo, unless they specifically know the individuals or the organizations in a manner separate from the online pleas for help,” Downs says.