Donor Scams: A Rising Threat to Non-Profits and How to Stay Safe

Key takeaways:
  1. Donor scams are where a cybercriminal fraudulently impersonates a non-profit organization to solicit donations.
  2. Donor scams can harm a non-profit’s reputation and significantly impact its ability to fulfill its mission.
  3. Cybercriminals use various methods to execute a donor scam, including stealing donor lists, setting up fake websites, and sending phishing emails.
  4. Stay safe by using robust cybersecurity, keeping systems up-to-date, and training your staff and volunteers to recognize the signs of a potential scam.


In the non-profit world, “donor scams” is a phrase that sends chills down the spine. These malicious acts have been steadily increasing in prevalence, robbing organizations of crucial resources and eroding the trust of generous donors. A significant victim of such deceit is a non-profit’s reputation, which can be critically tarnished. Click here to learn more about the impacts of a damaged reputation. This article aims to shed light on the nature of these scams, their execution, and, importantly, how non-profits can safeguard themselves.

What are donor scams?

Donor scams are fraudulent activities where individuals are deceived into donating funds under the guise of contributing to a legitimate non-profit. The aim is to trick donors into contributing funds to fake causes or individuals posing as a real, established non-profit. The motive behind these scams is the exploitation of donors’ goodwill and trust for profit.

A hypothetical example of a donor scam

Imagine a non-profit organization, “Community Helpers,” well-respected for providing food and shelter for the homeless. One day, the organization falls victim to a data breach, and its donor list, containing names, email addresses, and phone numbers, falls into the hands of cybercriminals.

Using this stolen information, the cybercriminals hatch a malicious plan. They may steal the Community Helpers logo and begin soliciting donations by sending an email that looks and sounds legitimate but links to a fake donation page. Or they may even set up an online presence of an organization with a similar-sounding name, “Community Helper” (no “s”). They create an equally convincing website and social media presence, complete with a logo eerily similar to that of the real Community Helpers.

Before the real Community Helpers even knows they’ve been compromised, the fraudsters start sending emails to the stolen list of donors. The emails are meticulously crafted using artificial intelligence to replicate the tone and style of the genuine non-profit. The message expresses a pressing need to raise funds for an urgent project. The email includes a call to action, directing donors to contribute through a link leading to the fraudulent “Community Helper” website.

Well-intentioned donors, believing the urgency of the cause and not noticing the slight difference in the organization’s name and logo, click the link and land on the phony website. They fill out the donation form, provide their credit card information, and hit “Donate Now,” thinking they are helping.

In reality, they have just fallen victim to a donor scam, their generous contributions instead lining the pockets of cybercriminals. Meanwhile, the real Community Helpers organization remains unaware of this malicious activity until donors start contacting them about the project they believe they helped fund. The impact of such a scam is threefold: financial loss for the donors, significant reputation damage for the non-profit, and a loss of revenue now and in the future causing donors to think twice about donating to any organization using the name “Community Helpers.”

How do cybercriminals run donor scams?

Cybercriminals typically execute these scams by impersonating a legitimate non-profit organization. They may use the non-profit’s logo, language, and other identifiable elements to create convincing emails, social media accounts, and even telephone calls to potential donors.

Stolen donor lists are a treasure trove for cybercriminals. Once these miscreants breach a non-profit’s database and acquire these lists, they have direct access to previous donors, making them prime targets. Such donors have already shown a propensity to give and, with a bit of persuasion, could fall prey to these scams.

Donor scams often rely on emotional manipulation. Cybercriminals may use urgent or emergency language to create a sense of urgency around the donation. Alternatively, they might exploit current events or crises to appeal to the donor’s emotions and encourage them to donate quickly without checking the legitimacy of the request.

Phishing emails play a significant role in donor scams. These are emails that mimic the official communication style and layout of a legitimate non-profit, tricking the recipient into believing that the email is authentic. These emails usually contain a call to action, such as a link to a fraudulent website where the donor’s sensitive information can be stolen.

Alongside these tactics, cybercriminals often construct fraudulent websites that mirror the appearance of a genuine non-profit site. These websites feature donation forms designed to capture personal information and credit card details from unsuspecting donors.

How to keep your organization safe from donor scams

While the methods used by scammers can be quite sophisticated, there are ways to protect against these scams. For instance, donors can verify an organization’s legitimacy by researching it online, and they should be wary of unsolicited donation requests. On the non-profit’s end, investing in robust cybersecurity measures and training staff on the signs of phishing attempts can be crucial steps in preventing donor scams.

Additionally, using secure methods to store and protect donor lists can prevent this valuable information from falling into the wrong hands. Regular communication with donors about how to verify legitimate donation requests can also act as a deterrent to scams.

Prioritize cybersecurity

The first line of defense is to prioritize robust cybersecurity measures. Training staff and volunteers to recognize signs of phishing attempts and impersonation is crucial. Keeping software, systems, and website security up-to-date can act as a shield against these cyber threats.

Donor scams pose a significant threat to non-profits. They undermine the financial stability of these organizations and erode donors’ trust, which can have long-lasting implications. As such, it is imperative that non-profits prioritize cybersecurity, educate their staff, and maintain open communication with donors about this growing menace.

Hire a team of experts from tca SynerTech.

In the face of these cyber threats, the need for a team of IT professionals equipped with proactive cybersecurity solutions is more vital than ever. By partnering with tca SynerTech, non-profits can stay ahead of these threats and continue to serve their communities effectively and safely. Don’t wait until it’s too late; contact tca SynerTech today to learn more about how you can add an entire IT department to your organization starting at less than the cost of a single low-level employee.