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    FTC shuts down charity scam that defrauded consumers out of millions

    The agency is reminding consumers to do their research before giving money

    The holidays are just around the corner, which means the season of giving is nearly upon us. But a recent action taken by the FTC shows just how important it is for consumers to be cautious when it comes to the organizations and causes they choose to donate to. 

    This week, the agency -- in coordination with regulators from New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Virginia -- secured a settlement with a charity funding operation that allegedly defrauded consumers out of millions of dollars in donations. 

    The settlement names four defendants who ran several charities that were supposed to raise money for veterans, retired and disabled law enforcement officers, breast cancer survivors, and others in need. However, they allegedly pocketed up to 90 percent of these donations to pay themselves. Regulators say the sometimes less than two percent of proceeds went to the groups that were supposed to receive the funds.

    As part of the settlement, the charity fundraising business is being forced to shut down and the defendants will have surrender tens of millions of dollars to the aforementioned states. The FTC says these funds will then be redistributed to legitimate charities “that perform services that mirror those promised by the sham charities.”

    “This action puts fundraisers on notice: the FTC will not only shut down sham charities, it will aggressively pursue their fundraisers who participate in the deception,” said Andrew Smith, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. 

    Do your research before donating

    This case highlights just how important it is for consumers to do their research before donating money to a charity. New York Attorney General Letitia James says that establishing trust with a charitable cause through proper vetting can ensure that your generosity isn’t being exploited.

    “My office will continue to work with partners such as the FTC and other states to take action that protects donors and charitable entities,” she said. 

    Smith says consumers can use the FTC’s website at this address to learn how to spot a potential charity scam.

    The holidays are just around the corner, which means the season of giving is nearly upon us. But a recent action taken by the FTC shows just how important...
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    FTC comes down hard on charities that scam veterans and Armed Forces members

    The agency is stepping up protections and increasing fines against deceitful actors

    The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is lowering the boom on any charity that maliciously asserts that it’s raising money on behalf of servicemen and veterans.

    Law enforcement and charity regulators from every state in the Union are partnering in the FTC’s crackdown. So far, those combined forces have taken more than 100 actions and established an online education resource called “Operation Donate with Honor” to help consumers understand how charity scams work.

    “Americans are grateful for the sacrifices made by those who serve in the U.S. armed forces,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “Sadly, some con artists prey on that gratitude, using lies and deception to line their own pockets. In the process, they harm not only well-meaning donors, but also the many legitimate charities that actually do great work on behalf of veterans and servicemembers.”

    Preying on veterans and servicemembers

    As an example, the Center for Public Integrity reported that retired Army Maj. Brian Arthur Hampton headed up three such organizations, one of which included the Center for American Homeless Veterans.

    One of the telemarketers that Hampton allegedly used -- Outreach Calling -- kept a whopping $7.9 million of the $8.7 million it raised for Hampton’s “Circle of Friends for American Veterans” between 2011 and 2015.

    In Florida, the state’s attorney general Pam Bondi was able to get a judgement against the sham veterans charity Help the Vets, Inc. and its founder, Neil Paulson, Sr. Help the Vets raised approximately $20 million between 2014 and 2017 with the promise that donations would assist vets with everything from medical care to suicide prevention. Bondi found that the money went to Paulson instead.

    Paulson’s game ended when he signed a Stipulated Final Judgment and Permanent Injunction, in which Help the Vets relinquished its remaining assets and Paulson was banned for life from any kind of charity management. He also was required to fork over $1.75 million, nearly twice the amount Paulson personally received from Help the Vets.

    “July is Military Consumer Protection Month and one way to protect our veterans and service members is to stop scammers who exploit military members in an effort to steal charitable donations,” said Bondi.

    “It is reprehensible that anyone would prey on the good intentions of people trying to help our heroes and I will not let the immoral actions of a few bad actors taint the good work of our legitimate charities.”

    Donor beware

    The desire to support those who have fought for the U.S. can turn many consumers into easy targets. The FTC and state attorneys general can’t emphasize the importance of taking some time to check out any and all fundraising pitches.

    Whether it’s online, telemarketing, direct mail, or someone that just shows up at your door, consumers are cautioned to tell the marketer that they’ll take it under consideration and get back to them.

    Charity scams can run the gamut -- from misleading prize promotion solicitations to tax deductions. When disasters hit, scams are prone to rearing their ugly heads in hopes of turning sympathizers into suckers.

    The FTC publishes updates on scams and warns consumers to not to let anyone rush them into making a donation. It also posts reminders to beware of scammers who try to trick consumers into paying them by thanking the consumer for a donation they never made.

    Perhaps the most prevalent types of charity scams are carried out through an ever-increasing number of robocalls. In particular, the FTC warns consumers to be cautious about answering calls that look like they’re from a local area code, a new wrinkle scammers have started using. The agency continues to emphasize that all consumers should make sure they’re on the government's national Do Not Call registry.

    How to validate a charity

    In the case of the veterans and servicemembers scam, the FTC has produced a video that gives consumers some basic information on what to look out for.

    The FTC also has a handy checklist that consumers can use to gauge the integrity of a charity before they write a check.

    Other resources include Charity Watch where consumers can sniff out the validity of a charity and how much it actually gives to the intended programs it says it supports. Plus, almost every state has its own check-a-charity interface or, at minimum, updates on scams its attorney generals have uncovered.

    "I'm glad that government regulators are shutting down some scam charities that have been ripping off donors for years. But we must remain vigilant; there are still far too many unethical or poorly performing charities still actively soliciting our dollars. This is particularly true with veterans and military charities," said CharityWatch President Daniel Borochoff in a statement to ConsumerAffairs. 

    The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is lowering the boom on any charity that maliciously asserts that it’s raising money on behalf of servicemen and veteran...
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    IRS warns of multiple scams in wake of recent tragedies

    Scammers often try to capitalize on a national tragedy to bilk consumers

    Consumers are targeted by scams every day, but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) warns that recent tragedies have unfortunately created an uptick in scams seeking to exploit Americans’ desire to help victims.

    The IRS points out the country has experienced a series of major disasters and a mass shooting in quick succession, so donors need to be particularly vigilant to look for signs of a scam before sending money.

    “These scams evolve over time and adjust to reflect events in the news, but they all typically are variations on a familiar theme,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “Recognizing these schemes and taking some simple steps can protect taxpayers against these con artists.”

    Beware of unfamiliar charities

    Consumers should look out for appeals for donations from unfamiliar charities, or organizations that have names similar to a legitimate charitable organization. They should also be highly suspicious of appeals that come in the form of an email, text, or telephone call since legitimate charities usually stick to mass advertising like television commercials to solicit donations.

    Consumers who want to donate to any charitable cause should initiate the search for a group themselves, not respond to direct contact that may not be legitimate. The American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and United Way are three groups that are involved in providing help to victims of wildfires, hurricanes, and mass shootings.

    The IRS, meanwhile, is also trying to help victims of the California wildfires. It's extending the deadline to file certain individual and business tax returns and make certain tax payments until Jan. 31, 2018. The extension postpones deadlines beginning October 8 and applies to residents of seven California counties.

    Impersonating IRS agents

    The tax agency spends a good deal of its time countering the efforts of scammers, who often pose as IRS agents to fool consumers. Most recently, it has warned about scammers using a phishing scheme to steal client email addresses from tax professionals to access insurance and annuity accounts.

    The IRS reminds consumers that it does not call and leave pre-recorded, urgent messages demanding a call back. If you get one of these calls, it's from a scammer who hopes to scare you into thinking you will be arrested if you do not respond.

    There are legitimate IRS functions that scammers may also try to exploit. The agency has sent letters to taxpayers whose overdue accounts have been assigned to one of four private sector collection agencies. Scammers are already trying to take advantage of this by calling and threatening taxpayers if they do not pay the overdue amount quickly.

    What to do

    If you receive one of these calls but are not aware that you have an overdue bill, it's a scam. The IRS says all of the taxpayers receiving calls about their overdue accounts are well aware of the issue, since they have been corresponding with the IRS about it for years.

    Legitimate contact with the IRS almost always begins with a letter through the U.S. Mail. In rare cases, an IRS official may show up at your home or business, but they will always first establish the time and reason in a letter.

    Any consumers with a question about whether a contact from the IRS is real should go online, look up the number for the closest IRS office, and call the agency directly to inquire.

    Consumers are targeted by scams every day, but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) warns that recent tragedies have unfortunately created an uptick in scams...
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    Online obituary sites collected unauthorized charitable donations

    Legacy.com and Tributes settle Vermont charges, agree to reform their practices

    It's not just undertakers and florists who profit from death. Local newspapers and online sites have found a steady stream of revenue in the obituary business and now routinely gouge families to run even the simplest death announcement.

    Finding a profitable business model frequently results in looking for ways to milk more revenue out of each transaction, and that's what Vermont says online obit sites have been up to lately. 

    Legacy.com and Tributes have agreed to pay more than $30,000 to settle charges by Vermont that they ran a scheme to solicit unauthorized donations to nonprofits in lieu of flowers.

    “We are pleased to end this practice, which has cost Vermonters unnecessary fees at a time of vulnerability. This is a good outcome for Vermont donors and nonprofits alike.” Attorney General William H. Sorrell said.

    According to Sorrell, the sites directed mourners wanting to donate to nonprofits like the American Cancer Society to Givalike, a third-party website that collected the money, deducted its cut, and sent the remainder to the charity.

    Didn't get consent

    The problem with this is that, in Vermont and many other states, it is illegal to solicit donations for a charity without first getting the charity's consent. Additionally, the state charged that in some instances, neither the deceased nor the immediate family had asked for donations to be solicited for a charity.

    The sites also failed to register as paid fundraisers in Vermont and failed to follow the state's laws regarding charitable solicitations.

    Under the terms of the settlement, Legacy.com and Tributes agreed not to allow software in the obituary of any Vermonter, or in any obituary where a Vermont nonprofit is listed without disclosing that a third-party’s website will be used and disclosing all fees. 

    As part of the settlement, both Legacy.com and Tributes will pay the state for penalties and attorneys’ costs and fees totaling more than $30,000.

    Sorrell's office is still investigating the three California-based principals of Givalike, which is no longer in business.

    It's not just undertakers and florists who profit from death. Local newspapers and online sites have found a steady stream of revenue in the obituary busin...
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    Report finds telemarketers pocket most of the funds they solicit for charities

    For-profit fundraisers kept 52 cents of every dollar they raised

    For-profit telemarketers raised $302 million for charity from New Yorkers in 2013. They kept $156 million, more than half. That's according to a report, "Pennies for Charity," released today by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

    “New Yorkers who are generous enough to donate their hard-earned money to charity deserve to know how that money is really spent, including how much is used to pay for-profit telemarketers,” Schneiderman said. “Our Pennies for Charity report is an important tool for transparency because it informs the donating public what portion of their charitable contributions made through telemarketers went to the outside fundraisers’, and how much was left to support charitable programs.”

    At 48%, the share of funds raised by for-profit telemarketers that went to charity in 2013 increased significantly in comparison to 2012, when only 37% of the funds raised went to the charitable missions donors intended to support. The Pennies for Charity report has been published annually for the last 12 years, drawing attention to this issue.

    Other significant findings from analyzing the 573 fundraising campaigns covered in the Attorney General’s report include:

    • In 75%, or 435 of the 573, the charities retained less than 50 percent of the funds raised.
    • In 49.2%, or 282 of the 573 campaigns, the charities retained less than 30% of the funds raised or expenses exceeded contributions.
    • Of the 573 campaigns, 316 were conducted on behalf of organizations located outside of New York.

    Expensive and intrusive

    Despite improvements in the share of funds going to charitable purposes, Schneiderman said telemarketing remains an expensive and intrusive method of raising funds for charity, and suffers from significant limitations compared to other forms of fundraising:

    • it encourages “me-too” charities which sound like respected and effective charities, but are much less effective; for example, the well-known “Make-a-Wish Foundations” and the me-too “Kids Wish Network,” which pays out more than 2/3 of its telemarketing revenue to fundraisers;
    • the largely anonymous interaction between telemarketer staff, located at a remote call center, and the call recipient is difficult to detail after the fact, making policing or proof of misrepresentation difficult;
    • many charities fail to actively monitor the fundraisers they engage and hold them accountable. The Attorney General has found a number of fundraisers with significant histories of violations who continue to secure fundraising contracts, seemingly with little board oversight or involvement.

    What to do

    chneiderman issued the following tips when making donations via phone solicitation:

    Resist Pressure To Give On The Spot.If you receive a call from a telemarketer, do not feel pressured to give over the phone. You can ask to receive information about the cause and a solicitation by mail.
    Ask The Telemarketer. Ask the caller what programs are conducted by the charity, how much of your donation will be used for charitable programs, how much the telemarketer is being paid and how much of your donation the charity is guaranteed.
    Ask How Your Donation Will Be Used. Ask specifically how the charity plans to use your donation, including the services and organizations your donation will support. Avoid charities that make emotional appeals and are vague in answering your questions. Be wary if an organization will not provide written information about its charitable programs and finances upon request. Any legitimate organization will be glad to send you this information.
    Look Up Charities. Review information about the charity before you give. The Attorney General’s interactive website allows potential donors to easily search the "Pennies for Charity" report by the name of the charity or by region in New York State.Also confirm that the charity is eligible to receive tax-deductible donations by searching the IRS website.
    Give To Established Charities. Donate to organizations you are familiar with or ones with a verifiable record of success in meeting their charitable missions. Closely examine charities with names similar to more established organizations.
    Never Give Cash. It's best to give your contribution by check made payable directly to the charity. This is safer than giving by credit or debit card and far safer than sending cash. Be careful about disclosing personal or financial information; never give out such information to an organization or individual you don't know.

    For-profit telemarketers raised $302 million for charity from New Yorkers in 2013. They kept $156 million, more than half. That's according to a report, "P...
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    New York State cracks down on charity scam

    Money donated to disabled veterans lined the fundraisers' pockets instead

    The main problem with donating to charity is that the world is full of scam artists happy to falsely pose as a charity in order to collect your “charity budget” for themselves. Other scam artists will collect money in the name of legitimate charities but keep the lion's share of donations for themselves, rather than give it to the charity in question.

    It's bad enough that the New York State attorney general's office has a “Charities Bureau” dedicated to investigating such things, and on July 1 the Charities Bureau reached a $24.6 million settlement with two for-profit direct mail vendors, Quadriga Art and Convergence Direct Marketing, over collections they made on behalf of the  (DVNF).

    Attorney General Eric Scheniederman said in a July 1 press release that:

    “This investigation sheds light on some of the most troublesome features of direct mail charitable fundraising as it is practiced in the United States today …. Taking advantage of a popular cause and what was an unsophisticated start-up charity, these direct mail companies used cleverly designed but misleading mailers to raise tens of millions of dollars in donations from generous Americans, nearly all of which went to the fundraisers and their agents, and left the charity nearly $14 million in debt. Charities and their fundraisers that rely on direct mail campaigns can and must do better -- and this settlement is an important milestone on the path forward.”

    $10 million

    The settlement requires Quadriga to pay $9.7 million in damages, forgive $13.8 million in debt that DVNF owed it, and pay the state of New York $800,000 to cover costs. Convergence, meanwhile, will pay $300,000 in damages.

    The two companies also must pay $10 million to assist the disabled veterans who were supposed to have been helped by the monies donated to DVNF.

    Although Schneiderman's investigation naturally focused only on problems in New York State, the settlement is likely to have repercussions nationwide.

    CNN started investigating Quadriga in 2010 (and took credit for Schneiderman's later interest in the company), saying that since 2008, Quadriga had raised $116 million on DVNF's behalf – with $104 million of that going right back to Quadriga – and what donations did trickle through to DVNF were for the most part useless.

    In 2011, for example, DVNF made donations to St. Benedict's, a small veterans' charity in Alabama, after devastating tornadoes swirled through the region. St. Benedict's director J.D. Simpson, in 2012, told CNN what sort of donations they actually received:

    "They sent us 2,600 bags of cough drops and 2,200 little bottles of sanitizer," J.D. Simpson told CNN. "And the great thing was, they sent us 11,520 bags of coconut M&M's. And we didn't have a lot of use for 11,520 bags of coconut M&M's. "

    What to do

    Incidentally: if you want to donate to a charity, whether a home for disabled veterans, domestic-violence victims or anything else, the best thing to send is cash, not stuff — on the off-chance your charity of choice actually thinks “Y'know, it sure would be helpful if we had 2,600 bags of cough drops and a truckload of coconut M&Ms,” they're still better off receiving money which they can then use to buy the cough drops and coconut candy.

    The same holds true for “short-term” charities: if a natural disaster hits a given region, and people there need clothes and blankets, the best thing to do is send money, because charity workers and volunteers don't have time to sort through piles of donated fabric items to determine what's worth keeping or who it should go to.

    The main problem with donating to charity is that the world is full of scam artists happy to falsely pose as a charity in order to collect your “char...
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    Watch out for mudslide relief scams

    Scam artists are profiting on others' misfortunes

    When disaster strikes, you can be sure that scam artists will be close behind. The latest example is the massive mudslide in Washington State. 

    Everyone would like to help but Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson warns that rip-off artists are already out in force.

    “All of us in Washington and around the country have deep sympathy for the victims and their loved ones and friends at this tragic time,” Ferguson said.

    “It is a natural instinct to want to provide assistance right away, but ... I advise potential donors to exercise caution and make sure their hard-earned dollars go for the purpose intended, not to line the pockets of scam artists.”

    Secretary of State Kim Wyman added: “Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this horrific mudslide. So much was lost by so many. I’m heartened that many Washingtonians have a strong impulse to be a part of the relief effort, at least financially, and to help the victims of this tragedy. I support that, obviously.

    “But as the Attorney General and I continue to emphasize in times like these, sadly there always seem to be rip-off artists who take advantage of people. It is shameful, but some so-called charities take advantage of our generous nature. I want people to donate to charities they know and trust, if that’s their desire, and I want no one’s money used to simply line some con-artist’s pocket.”

    Here are some tips to help you avoid being taken in by phony appeals:

    • Be suspicious of solicitors requesting immediate donations. Don’t rush decisions and consider contributing at give.org, a website run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
    • Make sure that charities are qualified to provide the type of disaster relief that is necessary.
    • Avoid cash donations. Write a check directly to the charity, not the fundraiser.
    • Never give out credit card numbers over the phone.
    • Be wary of “new” charities with unverifiable background information.
    • Watch out for solicitations from fake “victim” or memorial social media accounts.
    • Don’t be fooled by a name. Be watchful of charities that use sympathetic sounding names or names similar to well-known legitimate charities.

    When disaster strikes, you can be sure that scam artists will be close behind. The latest example is the massive mudslide in Washington State. Every...
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    Charities: The good, the bad, the scams

    There are many worthy causes out there but how do you identify them?

    Pete Thomson is President/CEO of McQ Media Inc, a media and advertising firm based in Dallas, Texas.   Thomson’s weekly radio program, The Consumer Team, airs on CBS Radio’s KRLD Radio in Dallas, Texas.

    ---

    During the holiday season, many Americans open up their wallets to support a favorite charity. From local non-profits to major national charities with $1 million-plus advertising budgets, the non-profit landscape is more crowded and competitive than ever.

    Just how important are the holidays to your average charity? Non-profits will often admit that over half of all their contributions are received in the fourth quarter, with much of the money being received in December.

    Largely because of the strategically crafted marketing campaigns, it’s easy to assume that non-profits are good managers of the money we give them. The images of hungry children being fed or other acts of kindness that result from a donation are indeed powerful. Yet, the reality in today’s marketplace is that a high percentage of non-profits are not effective at managing the donations they receive. 

    Some of the biggest, most reputable-appearing non-profits and ministries that dominate television and radio make big promises in their marketing.  However, in many cases, a relatively small percentage of donations actually reaches the needy.  In the case of many of the web-based charity campaigns, little or no money is going to the cause that is advertised. 

    Like the Wild West

    Charities and ministries that were founded with a mission of helping people, can lose focus of their foundational purpose because of the jaws of overhead.   CEO and leadership salaries, marketing and other infrastructure expenses can easily turn even the best-intentioned non-profit into an organization that is overtaken with the costs of doing business.  

    Thanks to several charity watchdog groups, consumers now have access to reliable and unbiased information regarding charities. Charity Navigator is a New York based non-profit that rates non-profits in a number of key criteria. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) offers a similar service which rates Christian charities.

    Sandra Miniutti, VP/CFO at Charity Navigator, says that donors need to be very careful before giving money to a charity. She said, “There’s a lot of scoundrels and thieves out there. There are more than a million public charities in America today. The IRS is charged with overseeing them at the federal level and there’s very little oversight. It’s a little like the Wild West and donors need to dig deeper into a charity’s performance before they hand over their hard earned money.”

    Financial transparency, according to Miniutti, is an important cornerstone to responsible non-profits. Ms. Miniutti indicated that many non-profits open their books to donors and the general public. Such transparency gives donors a way to confirm that their gifts are being utilized appropriately.

    Lack of transparency

    Still, a number of non-profits don’t open their books to the public. Many of these, according to Miniutti, are faith-based non-profits that are not required to share financial information. One such faith-based charity is The Salvation Army. Miniutti said that she finds The Salvation Army’s lack of financial transparency troubling.

    If a group is considered a house of worship by the IRS then we’re not able to rate it. And believe it or not, that includes The Salvation Army takes that exemption," she said. "They don’t have to file any financial data with the IRS so we can’t get access to data to evaluate them. We’ve asked them many times to share the data with us and they’ve refused to do so. We’ve found other religious groups that have the exemption with the IRS that will still provide us the data because they know that it’s important to their donors to see how they’re performing financially and to prove that accountability and transparency piece to them.”

    Beyond financial transparency, consumers should look at other financial data to ensure that a charity is using donations responsibly. Overhead should be measured as a percentage of total gifts received. According to Miniutti, the most responsible charities keep overhead to less than 25% of total cash gifts received. Another area to analyze is charity CEO salaries, which Miniutti says should be in line proportionately with the size of the non-profit.

    Cost of acquisition

    The cost of donor acquisition is important because it measures how much a charity pays to third parties for delivering new donors. Radio stations, for example, will sell non-profits large advertising campaigns which are designed to recruit new donors. Charities and media companies attempt to justify the process of charging nonprofits to raise money because the marketing campaigns generate new, incremental donors for a non-profit.

    But according to Miniutti, such marketing campaigns cut into charity operations and efficiency: “Anytime there’s a middleman involved, whether it be a telemarketing firm or a radio station trying to take a piece of the pie, that’s very disturbing. The truth is giving doesn’t change much in America from year to year. And if some of that money is evaporating into for profit companies, then the charitable sector has less to fulfill their worthy mission.”

    What to do

    In spite of the bad charities and scams, it is possible to connect with worthy non-profits. Here are some suggestions.

    Use The Watch Dogs  Tap into the vast resources of the charity watch dog organizations we’ve cited. Their services are free and can offer important information.

    Don’t Give to Door-to-Door Solicitors Because fake credentials and even uniforms can be easily produced, avoid giving to any charity that comes knocking on your door. Be especially wary of the local organizations with volunteers soliciting for funds on street corners. Charity Navigators generally gives low marks to police and fire fighter charities.

    Delete Charity Emails Unless you have an established relationship with a charity that you’ve first initiated, consider all the email solicitations to be bogus.  Even emails that appear to be from a major charity are often a front for a scam, often located off-shore and out of reach of US laws.

    Charity Scams Target Older Givers  Older people sadly often fall victim to charity scams.   Their general lack of sophistication with email (see email scams above) combined with isolation and their generosity makes for a perfect profile for the bad guys to go after.   Take time to make sure that the seniors in your life become well informed about charity and non-profit scams.

    Charity scams will only get more sophisticated and effective in the future.  Indeed, high technology has given the bad guys a new platform to operate in with great anonymity.  Because of this, consumers need to be even more vigilant in our efforts to separate the good from the bad.    Giving to reputable and responsible charities can truly impact the lives of hurting people.   Before giving, do your research to make sure your dollars are being used wisely.

    During the holiday season, many Americans open up their wallets to support a favorite charity. From local non-profits to major national charities with $1 m...
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    Beware of post-disaster charity scams

    Oklahoma tragedy likely to draw out fake charities

    Following disasters like the Oklahoma tornado, scam charities are quick to exploit the tragedy and misery, cynically tugging on heartstrings to line their own pockets. Consumers everywhere should be on guard.

    “For those folks around the country who want to donate funds to help families in Oklahoma, please be alert and only donate to reputable relief charities such as the Salvation Army or the Red Cross," said Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. "The first scam we typically see after devastation like this is charity fraud."

    Scam operators may come at you a number of different ways. They may operate bogus charities that contact people by telephone to solicit money or financial information. Potential victims might receive an email to steer them to bogus websites to solicit funds, allegedly for the benefit of tragedy victims.

    Sometimes these fraudulent websites are hard to distinguish from those of of legitimate charities. Sometimes they adopt a name that sounds familiar, similar to a charity you've heard of.

    Identity theft

    Sometimes they're after more than a simple donation. Sometimes they want your identity. After obtaining your personal information, they may clean out your bank account or open credit accounts in your name.

    On its website the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has an Exempt Organizations Select Check tool. You can use it to identify qualified charities. Only donations to qualified charitable organizations are tax-deductible. 

    You can also find legitimate charities on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Web site.

    Iowa sting

    Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has waged a lengthy and successful campaign against questionable charity fundraisers who call residents of his state. He recently obtained a court order barring a Florida telemarketer from operating in Iowa.

    In an ongoing sting operation, Miller obtained the Des Moines telephone number of an elderly resident and set it up with a recorder and one of his officers. When the telemarketer, claiming to be from A Child's Dream Foundation, called with its pitch, Miller recorded it and presented it as evidence. The audio of the call, posted on Miller's website, serves as a good example of how these pitches work. 

    The telemarketer was Telequal LLC. Its representative “outright lied” in the call, Miller said.

    “She said she was calling from the charity, claimed that the charity focused primarily on sick Iowa kids, and also claimed that a lot of each donation went to the kids,” Miller said. “In truth, the call was coming from Telequal. They were asking for money for an out of state charity that has no special Iowa focus, and 85% of every dollar donated went to the telemarketer, not to sick kids.”

    What to do

    Never respond to charity appeals from telemarketers. Legitimate charities don't work that way.

    Contribute only to established, reputable charities. In the case of the Oklahoma disaster, the state's attorney general has suggested the Red Cross or Salvation Army.

    Never contribute cash. For security and tax record purposes, contribute by check or credit card or another way that provides documentation of the donation.

    If you suspect fraud, report it to you state attorney general's office.

    Following disasters like the Oklahoma tornado, scam charities are quick to exploit the tragedy and misery, cynically tugging on heartstrings to line their ...
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