Beware of California Wildfire Charity Scams, FTC Warns

For Your Information

The Federal Trade Commission warns consumers to use caution when donating to charities that claim to help victims of the devastating California wildfires. While many legitimate groups help victims, scam artists may take advantage of the disaster by creating bogus fundraising operations.

The FTC’s Charity Checklist consumer alert offers tips to ensure that donation dollars benefit the people and organizations consumers want to help. The alert, available at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt114.shtm, advises consumers to be wary of appeals that tug at the heart strings, but are short on details about how disaster victims will benefit. The FTC advises consumers who are asked to contribute to a charity:

  • Don’t be shy about asking who wants your money. Some charities hire professional fundraisers for large-scale mailings, telephone drives, and other solicitations rather than use their own staff or volunteers, and then use a portion of the donations to pay the fundraiser’s fees. If you’re solicited for a donation, ask if the caller is a paid fundraiser, who they work for, and the percentage of your donation that will go to the charity and to the fundraiser. If you don’t get a clear answer – or if you don’t like the answer you get – consider donating to a different organization.
  • Call the charity. Find out if the organization is aware of the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name. If not, you may be dealing with a scam artist.
  • Ask for written information about the charity, including name, address, and telephone number.
  • Contact the office that regulates charitable organizations and charitable solicitations in your state to see if the charity or fundraiser must be registered. If so, check to make sure that the company you’re talking to is registered. For a list of state offices, visit the National Association of State Charity Officials at www.nasconet.org/agencies. Your state office also can verify how much of your donation goes to the charity, and how much goes to fundraising and management expenses. You also can check out charities with the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance (www.bbb.org/charity) and GuideStar (www.guidestar.org).
  • Trust your gut – and check your records if you have any doubt about whether you’ve made a pledge or a contribution. Callers may try to trick you by thanking you for a pledge you didn’t make. If you don’t remember making the donation or don’t have a record of your pledge, resist the pressure to give.
  • Be wary of charities that spring up overnight in connection with current events or natural disasters. They may make a compelling case for your money, but as a practical matter, they probably don’t have the infrastructure to get your donation to the affected area or people.
  • Watch out for similar sounding names. Some phony charities use names that closely resemble those of respected, legitimate organizations. If you notice a small difference from the name of the charity you intend to deal with, call the organization you know to check it out.
  • Be cautious of promises of guaranteed sweepstakes winnings in exchange for a contribution. According to U.S. law, you never have to give a donation to be eligible to win a sweepstakes.
  • Be wary of charities offering to send a courier or overnight delivery service to collect your donation immediately.
  • Know the difference between “tax exempt” and “tax deductible.” Tax exempt means the organization doesn’t have to pay taxes. Tax deductible means you can deduct your contribution on your federal income tax return.
  • Do not send or give cash donations. Cash can be lost or stolen. For security and tax record purposes, it’s best to pay by credit card. If you’re thinking about giving online, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL that begins “https:” (the “s” stands for “secure”).

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,700 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s Web site provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.

(FYI 2009 Fires)

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