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How Instagrammers are 'exploiting the Sudan crisis' to get more followers

And a look at how to spot a fake charity and what you can do to help the Sudan crisis.

SALT LAKE CITY — In the midst of a political crisis in Sudan, celebrities and citizens across the world have taken to social media to raise awareness.

Recent conflict in Sudan came to a head on June 3, when a military crackdown left dozens of protesters dead, including 26-year-old Mohamed Hashim Mattar. Blue was Mattar’s favorite color, and the hashtag #BlueForSudan has gained momentum on social media, with users turning their profiles blue in solidarity with the hundreds of protesters killed and abused by the Sudan military.

But the Sudan crisis has sparked another social media trend — this one without such altruistic intentions, The Atlantic reported.

On Instagram, several accounts popped up claiming to help users do their part to alleviate the crisis — simply by hitting the “follow” button or reposting the account’s content.

The largest of the accounts, @SudanMealProject, garnered nearly 40,000 followers in just a few days. Other accounts — such as @SudanMealProjectOfficial, @SudanMealOfficial, @sudan.meals.project, @mealsforsudan, and @Sudanmealprojec.t — also gained tens of thousands of followers.

“We're committed to donating up to 100,000 meals to Sudanese civilians,” said @SudanMealProject’s bio, claiming to provide one meal to Sudanese children for every repost of the account’s content.

Seem too good to be true? That’s because it is.

These Instagram accounts are “exploiting the Sudan crisis” as a “ploy to get more followers,” The Atlantic reported, which could then be leveraged for social influence or making money from advertising.

This is part of a larger phenomenon, in which some Instagram users change their name and bio to a trending term in order to gain followers, and then swap their name and picture when the trend dies out, The Atlantic reported.

One of the Sudan accounts, @sudanese.meal.project, is now promoting a streetwear clothing resale group. Another, @SudanMealOfficial, has changed its name several times before.

https://www.instagram.com/sudanmeal_official/?hl=enThe account owner of @SudanMealProject was unable to demonstrate any proof of a working relationship with an aid organization, or evidence that any of the account’s promises had been fulfilled, according to The Atlantic. “What I am obtaining is followers and exposure,” the account administrator told The Atlantic.

An Instagram spokesperson told The Atlantic that it removed the account from the platform for violating its policies. "We will continue to look into this matter and disable further accounts we find in violation of our policies," the spokesperson said.

This isn’t the first time phony charities have cropped up online in response to a major crisis. After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, more than 4,600 websites advertising relief efforts popped up, most of which the FBI suspected were fraudulent, CNN reported.

One of the most striking involved two men registering a fake Salvation Army domain name — “salvationarmyonline.com” — and using it to collect nearly $50,000 in donations. Another man set up KatrinaAir.com to fundraise for a supposed flight to Louisiana to deliver medical supplies. He collected $40,000 in two days — and never arrived.

Such fraud was so prevalent that after Katrina that the U.S. Department of Justice established the National Center for Disaster Fraud to investigate fraud in its wake. The organization released a statement after Hurricane Harvey, warning Americans that such scammers were likely to try again.

But that doesn't mean people should withhold online donations, which can have a significant impact in times of disaster. Here are some tips from legitimate sources on how to avoid charity scams and donate safely online.

1. Choose charities wisely.

Don’t assume charity recommendations on social media have been vetted, and stick to known organizations that have a long track record of assisting with crisis or disaster relief efforts, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

For the crisis in Sudan, reputable organizations include UNICEF, Save the Children, and the International Rescue Committee.

Be skeptical of charities with unfamiliar names or ones that pop up in response to a specific event, and don’t click on links to charities on unfamiliar websites or in text messages or email — these can take you to look-alike websites asking you to provide personal financial information, or they may download viruses onto your computer, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Still not sure? Use one of these websites to background check the charity: Better Business Bureau's (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch or GuideStar.

2. Be careful with crowdfunding.

Some crowdfunding sites, which are websites that let you raise small amounts of money from a large group of people, do very little to vet individuals who decide to post asking for help during a crisis.

It can be difficult for donors to verify the credibility of such requests, according to the Better Business Bureau. Some use names and photos of victims without their family’s permission, and may have no connection to any charitable organization or even the tragedy itself.

Crowdfunding sites posted by legitimate charitable organizations will provide opportunities to learn more about the organization’s programs and finances, according to the Better Business Bureau. Some of the most reputable crowdfunding sites include GoFundMe, Kickstarter and IndieGogo.

3. Don't use cash.

Avoid cash donations if possible, the U.S. Department of Justice advises. Pay by credit card or write a check payable to a specific charity.