Tag Archives: Charity Fraud

T’is the season

This time of year, a lot of people are thinking about ways to help those who are less fortunate.

Some like to volunteer directly, others donate goods, and many like to give money to charitable organizations.

If you fall into that last category, this is your annual reminder: always look into a charity before you give them money. There are people out there who take advantage of others’ goodwill, and sometimes they set up elaborate schemes to siphon funds meant for other purposes.

If you’re unfamiliar with an organization, one of the best places to start is Charity Navigator.  There you can find out how much of a charity’s income it actually spends on its programs, how much it spends on fundraising, and more. Quick tip: if it spends 3% on programs and over 85% on fundraising, pass on making a contribution. All charities have some operating expenses, but that’s just beyond the pale.

I’m leery of charities that make cold calls. I used to get one all the time from an alleged charity that had something to do with police officers. I forget which one, so I won’t try to guess, but I recall the people on the phone would routinely imply that they themselves were actual officers. They weren’t. I never donated a cent because the whole operation sounded shady to me. Later I found out their operating expenses, including fundraising, executive salaries and administrative costs, took up something like 98% of their income. The other 2% went to whatever the charity claimed to do (they were vague about this as well). Maybe there are good charities that make cold calls, but I’ve never been contacted by one, so make sure you check them out before you donate a dime.

I believe the best way to avoid charity scams is to decide in advance who is getting your donations each year, and contact the organization(s) yourself. Pick your favorites, find out how to get in touch, and give whatever you are able.

They’ll be thrilled to take that call. I guarantee it.

T’is the season for another article about charity scams

To many people, this time of year is synonymous with “giving.”

It’s a season that brings out the best in us; we give thanks, we give gifts, and we give to those who are less fortunate than we.

However, it’s also a season that brings out the worst in others. They know a lot of people are in a giving sort of mood, and they take advantage of it. It seems like for every charity providing money and services to those in need, there is at least one organization whose primary mission is to line its own pockets. So how do you avoid charity scams during the holidays and throughout the year?

One of the best ways to give is to simply decide ahead of time which organizations you’re donating to this year, and make your contribution by contacting them directly. When a representative of another charity approaches or calls, simply explain that you’ve already made your contributions for the year. Many people give in this way, so they should be polite and accept your answer. A rude or hostile response is a sign of a charity that isn’t on the up-and-up.

You can also donate something other than money. Clothing and food are always popular items, or you can choose to help out where it is needed. Ask around—I can guarantee somebody needs you somewhere. Plus, donations of time and effort can be more rewarding than monetary giving, as they can bring new experiences and face-to-face contact with the people you’re helping.

Be wary of charities that contact you by email, unless you’ve given in the past and provided this information. Unsolicited email is always pretty sketchy to begin with; clicking on a link and providing credit card or other information can lead you straight into identity theft. However, if you gave to an organization before and provided your email, they may use it to contact you in the future, since it saves money on postage.

If someone approaches you in person or calls, be sure to ask what percentage of funds goes to the people the charity serves. A legitimate charity should expect this question and equip its callers, whether volunteers or paid employees, to answer it truthfully. The question is almost a litmus test in itself—every organization has operating expenses, so an answer like “100%” probably isn’t true, and as always a hostile or evasive response is a sign of a crooked charity. Ask for information to be sent to you, or ask for a website address, because you’re not going to give your credit card information to someone over the phone no matter who they claim to be, are you?

Donating by check is better than cash, because it gives you a way to track your donation. However, writing a check also puts your checking account number into someone else’s hands. If you trust the organization, that’s your call to make, but for an extra level of safety a cashier’s check is even better—even a legitimate charity can misplace a check or have its office burglarized. Finally, when it comes to checks, always make the check out to the charity, not an individual, and never trust anyone who tries to get you to make a check out to “CAS,” no matter what the initials supposedly stand for. All a thief has to do is add an “H” and they’ve got a check, from you, made out to “CASH.”

Do your homework before you give a single dime to anyone. Check out charities with the Better Business Bureau or Charity Navigator. Don’t assume that nonprofit status means anything, since crooked charities hide behind this designation. Finally, pay attention to the name of the charity—the difference between “Foundation” and “Fund” can be the difference between helping those in need and helping a thief buy a spare Jaguar.

Chile Earthquake Scams: yet another preemptive strike.

I don’t think you’d need to be a rocket surgeon to guess that Chile Earthquake Scams are already well underway. I once posed the hypothetical, “How long does it take a crook to turn something into a scam, four minutes?”

Turns out I wasn’t giving the con artists enough credit. My new estimate is 30 seconds.

The same rules apply here as when dealing with possible Haiti Earthquake Scams. Be extremely wary of unsolicited charity donations. The best way to help is to contact your favorite organization first and turn down all other requests.

There is a short article on the topic at Scambusters that identifies a couple additional threats beyond fake charities, and both involve malware.

Basically, if a stranger sends you alleged photos of the earthquake damage, do not open these attachments because they are infected with a virus. In fact, don’t even open the message at all. There is plenty of footage coming in through official news sources.

Also, beware of fake news stories that come up in search engines. These can lead to websites that are infected with malware as well. According to the Scambusters article, these sites were up within hours of the earthquake. Just go directly to your favorite news source’s website and get your information from there. Many will even have a list of trustworthy resources if you want to donate to relief efforts.

Haiti earthquake relief: texting to donate.

I think it’s pretty cool that technology has come to a point where you can now donate money to help victims of a natural disaster by texting a single word to a number (the charges show up on your cellular bill).

At the very least, it demonstrates that text messaging can be used for something beyond teenage cyberbullying and ZOMG-ing.

I know of two confirmed, legitimate ways to donate this way. The first is by texting HAITI to 90999. This number was set up by the American Red Cross, and will add $10 to your next bill.

The other is by texting YELE to 501501. This will donate $5 through Wyclef Jean’s Yéle Haiti Foundation. Jean is a native of Haiti, and he set up the Foundation in 2005.

These are the good guys.

However, you know there are going to be some people who try to turn a profit from this technology. It may not be as easy as setting up a fake website, but there are plenty of companies that are willing to do that which is skeevy, and are already set up with “text X to Y to get Z” services.

Most likely what will happen is a bunch of not-so-charitable charities will set up numbers that are similar to the real ones, and end up donating 1% of their income from the campaign.

You know those ads for ringtones that MTV is literally lousy with these days? I wouldn’t put it past some of those companies to set up a mostly-fake Haiti earthquake charity. They’ll probably sign you up for some $20/month “Worst Music in the Universe Ringtones” service while they’re at it.

Seriously, if you’re considering donating in this way, my first advice is to just use the two numbers listed above. Or you could skip the texting and donate online (is that the “old fashioned way” already?):

If you see a “text to donate” number that isn’t one of the two I mentioned above, be very cautious. Check it out before you do anything, and read the fine print carefully. Google exists. Use it.

And, seriously, if the word “ringtone” appears anywhere in the request or in the fine print, it’s one of those scummy companies (scumpanies?) whose commercials make MTV unwatchable. Well, that and the execrable programming.