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It's only February, but multiple cancer scams have already made headlines this year.

February 24, 2016

Thanks to the power of social media and online crowdfunding, it's now easier than ever to raise money for a worthy cause. If you're not familiar with crowd funding sites such as GoFundMe, GiveForward, and YouCaring, they allow users to set up fundraising pages to collect donations for anything from medical bills to financial support during a crisis. But sadly, on occasion, people do exploit these resources for personal gain.

It's only February, and multiple cancer scams have already made headlines this year. In January, a Georgia nurse who accepted $25,000 in donations from online supporters was arrested for first-degree forgery and misdemeanor theft after investigators discovered that she was pretending to have stage IV cancer. Then a Seattle TV station revealed that local cancer advocate Tracy Dart—who had become well-known for beating breast cancer three times—may have actually never had the disease. And a few weeks ago, a Connecticut man who faked terminal brain cancer was charged with first-degree larceny after he collected thousands of dollars in donations from friends and family.

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As disappointing and depressing as news like this is, it doesn't diminish the fact that online crowdfunding can help those who truly need it. And it's important to remember that the vast majority of causes listed on these sites are legitimate and deserving: "Scams are incredibly rare," says Dan Pfeiffer, Vice President of Communications and Policy at GoFundMe, adding that they represent "much less than one-tenth of 1%" of the campaigns on his site.

Josh Chapman, CEO of GiveForward, agrees. "In the beginning, scams weren't a concern because people personally invited family and friends to their donation pages," he explains. "But in our experience, it's definitely something that has grown in the past year or so."

With that in mind, before you make your next donation, experts recommend that you take the following precautions to make sure that your money and good intentions go where you intend.

Give to campaigns you have a personal connection to

The best way to protect yourself in any situation in which you're donating money—whether in "real life" or online—is by having a connection to the cause. "We encourage people to donate to campaigns of users they personally know and trust, or are connected to within one or two steps," says Pfeiffer. "When you're considering a campaign, look to see if you personally know the campaign organizer, the beneficiary, or any of the individuals who have already donated to it." This greatly reduces the risk of fraud, since people are much less likely to deceive family and friends than they are strangers.

Don't know the campaign organizer, but still feel moved to give? Read the comments section, says Chapman. "We really emphasize commenting on GiveForward," he explains. Users are urged to comment both when they donate money and when they set up a campaign. "That way you can tell if the donations and social shares are coming from people who know the organizer in real life." Reading those comments can offer greater insight into the campaign and reassure you that the information listed is accurate.

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Do some research

Most crowdfunding sites require you to register with a verified Facebook account, which means that users should be displaying their real identities on the site. If you don't personally know the campaign organizer or beneficiary, it's not a bad idea to check out their Facebook page to get a sense of whether or not it's a legitimate account. (For example, is there activity on the page, such as recent comments and photos? Is there a bio section with information like location and education filled out? Are they sharing the campaign on their own personal social networks?) A Facebook account that clearly looks fake, inactive, or has an especially low friend count could be a red flag.

Consumer Reports has another good tip: Check out other crowdfunding websites to see if the organizer has posted their campaign in multiple places. While it's not necessarily a bad thing to have the same campaign listed on different websites (it's a good strategy for helping boost your reach, after all), you can compare and contrast the information on the different listings to make sure the details line up.

Proceed with caution around trending news stories

"We have seen the biggest growth in scams when a tragedy occurs that attracts press attention," says Chapman. Reporters often visit crowdfunding sites like GiveForward to find related personal stories to feature in their coverage, he explains. The vast majority of the time, the stories the press shares involve legitimate fundraising campaigns, he saysBut the opportunity for press attention can be tempting for would-be scammers, who know that a campaign could have the potential to go viral in the wake of a newsworthy event, potentially reaching compassionate strangers. "So if you were to come across an online fundraiser in the press, and there's not a lot of Facebook shares or comments from 'real life' friends and family on the page, I might be skeptical of that," Chapman says.

RELATED: This Woman Is Accused of Faking Breast Cancer and Collecting Thousands in Donations

Think you've come across a scam?

Report it to the website right away. You can do this on most sites by going to the "Contact Us" section and flagging your message as related to a potential fraud. If you believe you've been the victim of a scam, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission here. For more information on protecting yourself online, visit usa.gov/online-safety.

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