Protect yourself from charity fraud and other scams by being aware

The Allegheny County DA’s Senior Justice Division is available to help you stay safe.

Last year in Allegheny County, a staggering 12,000 people (just like you!) lost nearly $8 million by falling prey to various scams. A thief can come at you many ways—by phone, mail and email, at your door or through the Internet. Especially at this “open enrollment” time of year when correspondence regarding medical insurance and Medicare/Medicaid is in circulation, scammers can pretend to be legitimate companies and charities asking for information that may give them access to your bank or credit card accounts. 

Help is available for seniors in Allegheny County. The Senior Justice Division within the office of District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. can assist you in pushing back against criminals who victimize older adults through crimes of fraud, abuse and neglect. In fact, within the past 18 months, more than 5,000 seniors have been counselled about scams by the Senior Justice Division and, as a result, have saved about $9 million in losses. Still, most fraud (nearly half) goes unreported, so the actual numbers are even higher.

Why is Allegheny County a target for scammers? Longtime Pittsburgh residents are legendary for their generosity and support of worthwhile causes. We give more per capita than probably anywhere else in the country. Allegheny County also has the highest percentage of people born before 1958. That means assets in the form of bank accounts, pensions and property, along with a high percentage of people who are vulnerable to financial thieves and predators. And when a natural disaster or man-made tragedy strikes, fundraising efforts started popping up online; we want to contribute, but how do we separate legitimate fundraisers from scams? Once you do make a donation, how can you ensure that your money is actually helping the people in need? 

These are the questions that the Senior Justice Division can help you obtain answers to. For starters:

Don’t give out your personal financial information, such as your Social Security number or passwords, to anyone who solicits a contribution. Scam artists may use this information to steal your identity. 

Be wary of charities with names that are similar to familiar or nationally known organizations. Some phony charities use names or websites that sound or look like those of respected, legitimate organizations. 

Determine if a charity is legitimate by using the IRS’ Tax Exempt Organization Search tool at:

Don’t give or send cash. For security and tax purposes, make your donations by check, credit card or another way that provides documentation of the transaction.

The Federal Trade Commission tracks various scams and publishes an annual list of what they call the “Dirty Dozen.” Charity fraud has made it to number five on their list. To report a scam, call the FTC at (877) 382-4357. You can also file a complaint with the FTC by mail: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580; or online using the complaint form at Although the commission cannot resolve individual problems for consumers, it can act against a company if it sees a pattern of possible law violations. 

Let’s work together to make the acronym “S.O.S.” stand for “Slower, Older, Smarter.” Since you’ve made it to this point in your life, you have enough information and experience to be smarter. Take your time, don’t be rushed into making quick decisions about donations (or anything for that matter) that involve your hard-earned and saved money.

Julie Capone A.D.A., Cyndie Carioli, Joe Giuffre, and Dick Skrinjar from the Senior Justice Department of the Office of District Attorney of Allegheny County contributed to this article. To learn more, call the DA’s Senior Justice Department at (412) 350-4400.