Scam Artists Prey on Gulf Oil Spill Victims

Friday, 11 Jun 2010 10:21 AM

By Bruce Mandelblit

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The Gulf of Mexico’s deadly and catastrophic oil spill continues to be the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history.

Given these dire circumstances, it would be hard to believe that anyone would be so heartless as to take improper advantage of these awful conditions for their own personal financial gain.

Within days of the horrific Gulf oil spill, media reports indicate that lowlife scammers and wicked cyber-thugs were already trying to scam the charitable donations of hard-working Americans — and therefore preventing this essential money from reaching victims of the disastrous oil spill.

Sadly, it is reported by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it is common for criminals to steal funds from generous folks who think they are donating to legit charities that are trying to assist the hard-hit victims of disasters, such as the Gulf oil spill. As such, the FTC warns consumers to use caution when donating to charities that claim to help victims of the devastating catastrophes.

According to the FTC, while many legitimate groups help victims, scam artists may take advantage of the disaster by creating bogus fundraising operations.

The FTC warns 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 of the following:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Ask for written information about the charity, including name, address, and telephone number.

4. 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).

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. Be wary of charities offering to send a courier or overnight delivery service to collect your donation immediately.

10. 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.

11. 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”).

For more information on these FTC charity scam tips, go to FTC.gov.

My Final Thoughts: Most charities that raise money to help the victims of disasters are legit and work very hard to help those people in desperate need. A few cruel scammers, however, are lurking out there trying to take advantage of good and generous people who are willing to donate their hard-earned cash to help victims of disasters.

So before you donate your money, take the time to make sure the charity to which you are giving is legitimate.

If you think your donation was given to a fake charity or other scam artist, please contact your local law enforcement agency and call the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP for assistance.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the hard-hit victims of the Gulf oil spill, one of the worst ecological disasters of all time.

Copyright 2010 by Bruce Mandelblit

Bruce Mandelblit (www.CrimeZilla.com) is a nationally known security and safety journalist, as well as a recently retired, highly decorated reserve law enforcement officer. His e-mail address is CrimePrevention123@yahoo.com.

This column is provided for general information purposes only. Please check with your local law enforcement agency and legal professional for information specific to you and your jurisdiction.


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