Holidays can bring charity scams

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 21, 2011 edition

It happens at this time every year: The phone rings, and on the other end is a caller seeking donations to a particular charity.

But experts remind consumers to be cautious. It could be a scam.

During the holiday season, people tend to be more generous, especially for what they perceive to be a good cause. Additionally, consumers are creeping up on the final days of the year to make charitable deductions for tax purposes, and people are either asking for donations or looking for groups to support, said Deatra Riley, financial education manager for CredAbility, formerly known as Consumer Counseling Credit Service of Greater Atlanta.

That means "anybody who has a scam or scheme going knows people are looking," she said.

"What we try to get across to people is to consider this a buying decision," said Dottie Callina, a spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau serving metro Atlanta. "A legitimate charity will give you the time you need to check them out. "

Sometimes, experts say, organizations might claim to support causes benefiting veterans, police officers, firefighters and children. The best course of action is to check with the local police or fire department to see if the solicitors represent them.

John Sours, administrator of the Governor's Office of Consumer Protection, said people should be wary of solicitors who make persistent phone calls or other high-pressure tactics. He said groups often targeted include the elderly and military families, especially if someone is deployed.

Here are some other tips:

  • Do your homework. Research the charity by examining its financial information. Know how much that charity spends on fundraising, executive salaries, expenses and programs. Online resources include the Better Business Bureau (www.give.org) and GuideStar (www.guidestar.org).
  • Consider other ways to help such as volunteering.
  • Be wary of telephone solicitors asking for contributions. Ask that the individual put the request in writing and provide complete information about the charitable program. Ask if the caller is a telemarketer or a volunteer.
  • Never give your credit card, debit card number or bank account information to a telephone solicitor.
  • Just because an organization's name sounds like a charity doesn't mean it is one. Some organizations adopt names very similar to well-known charities. Make sure you know which organization wants your money.
  • Think twice about donating to organizations that list only post office boxes and mail drop suite numbers.
  • If you use a credit card, make sure there are no recurring charges.

"One of the main things we tell people is to make sure they don't give away what they cannot afford to lose," added Riley.