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When tragedy strikes on a large scale, as it has recently in East Tennessee, many people respond by opening up their wallets and using their dollars to try and make things better

Others, unfortunately, become very interested in those dollars, but could take or leave the making things better part.

It’s these scammers who Secretary of State Tre Hargett wants Tennesseans to be vigilant against when they donate to help victims of the devastating Gatlinburg fires.

“Please be diligent in giving only to reputable organizations so that we can best assist the people of Gatlinburg and Sevier County,” Hargett said.

The Division of Charitable Solicitations, Fantasy Sports and Gaming, the part of the Secretary of State’s office that investigates scams, has released a video and a list of recommendations to help Tennesseans protect themselves and their finances against bad actors who may seek to take advantage of their generosity.

The following is a partial list of those recommendations:

  • Take your time. Resist pressure to give on the spot.
  • Ask Questions. If an organization has a specific mission, ask how and who will benefit from your donation.
  • Avoid giving cash. Always ask for a receipt and if your contribution is tax deductible.
  • If a nonprofit asks you for a contribution, check to see if it’s registered with the Division of Charitable Solicitations, Fantasy Sports and Gaming.

Scams like the ones Hargett warned against proliferated in the state after previous disasters like the 2010 flood, Adam Ghassemi, Director of Communications for the Secretary of State, said. He laid out the way these scams sometimes work.

“People can make a business out of this,” he said. “They wait until a disaster happens, then roll in and collect money claiming that they are victims of the disaster.”

So far, the division has received no specific reports of scammers looking to profit from the Gatlinburg fires, Ghassemi said. Getting out front of the problem, though, is essential.

“The best way to do that is to educate consumers and give them as much information as possible before money changes hands,” Ghassemi said. “After the fact it’s next to impossible to get that money back.”

Ghassemi emphasized that things like GoFundMe accounts or food and clothing drives by local churches are not regulated by the state. It is up to donors in those cases to do their own due diligence to ensure that funds or supplies are going to their intended destination.

If someone suspects they have been the victims of a scam, though, or have been solicited by an illegitimate charity, Ghassemi said they should not hesitate to contact the Division of Charitable Solicitations.

“We’d love to hear from the public,” he said. “That’s actually how a lot of investigations take place.”

All of this concern about potential scammers should not detract from the importance of charitable giving in the aftermath of a disaster. Hargett emphasized that people should not let caution lead to inaction.

“I still encourage Tennesseans to be generous but smart about contributions so that we maximize recovery efforts,” he said.

People can check a charitable organization’s legitimacy through a searchable database on the division’s website or by calling the division directly at either 615-741-2555 or 1-800-861-7393.

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