February 2, 2016; WTVR-TV (Richmond, VA)

The Better Business Bureau reports that more than two dozen Virginia nonprofits were sent an email by someone in England, unknown to the organizations, offering a $30,000 donation. Since the 1980s, such letters or emails, often referred to as “419” scams, have been used to induce unsuspecting individuals and nonprofits to send money abroad to pay foreign taxes or fees in exchange for the promise of releasing vastly larger sums to the person or group.

This recent scam is a little different. Shortly after the email is sent and contact established between the foreign individual and the nonprofit, the nonprofit receives a check for $40,000, not the promised $30,000. However, as Adam Kennedy, Executive Director or SwimRVA (one of the targeted charities) reports, another email arrives at the same time as the check. The second email explains that the overpayment is the result of a clerical error and asks the nonprofit to send back the extra $10,000. Kennedy tore up the check made out to his organization, but other nonprofits tried depositing their $40,000 check, only to have it bounce. The nonprofit could deposit the check and not know for several days that it had not been honored, during which time they might assume all is well and send the $10,000 “refund,” money likely never to be seen again.

A BBB representative says, “You’re not going to get a contribution for $40,000 unless you’ve been working that. These things don’t just happen.” We all know that if something seems too good to be true, it’s time to be cautious. Of course, nonprofit fundraising lore is replete with stories of large gifts received from previously unknown donors. While rare, these legitimate gifts happen just often enough to allow unsuspecting nonprofits to be deceived by scammers while hoping they’ll be one of the few to be touched by an angel donor.—Michael Wyland