National Consumers League

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'Tis the season for charity scams

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Make sure you're giving to a legitimate charity this seasonIt's that time of year, when many consumers are ready to open their hearts and wallets to many deserving charities. But con artists are well aware of this. How can you be sure you're giving to a good cause -- or a cause at all?

If you're thinking of giving to a charity this season, good for you! But be careful -- some scammers out there may be looking to take advantage of your generosity. Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about charity scams have become more frequent recently. The volume of complaints to the FTC's Consumer Sentinel system increased by 8.6 percent from 1.23 million in 2008 to 1.33 million in 2009.  While the volume of complaints regarding bogus charitable solicitations remained a small fraction of overall complaints, they were reported much more frequently in 2009, increased by 82.1 percent over the same period (1,908 in 2008 versus 3,474 in 2009).

Avoid being a statistic this holiday season! If you decide to give, start by doing your homework.

Non-profit tracking Web sites like GuideStar.org and CharityNavigator.org have a free databases (registration may be required) with detailed information on many charities. Do your due diligence to make sure the charity is for real before donating.

Your local newspaper or television or radio station often compiles lists of reputable charities responding to emergencies. Consider consulting these sources for information on how to give.

Be proactive! Contact the charity of your choice directly on the phone or via the Internet to ensure that your donation is going directly to the charity of your choice.

Consider setting up a personal charity/giving budget and deciding ahead of time who you want to give to, rather that being pressured into giving on the spur of the moment by a phone or e-mail solicitation.

Don't pay in cash, if possible. It is safer to pay by check or credit card. Be sure to get a receipt for any donation for tax purposes

If a charity contacts you, be cautious.

If you’re approached by an unfamiliar charity, check it out. Most states require charities to register with them and file annual reports showing how they use donations. Ask your state or local consumer protection agency how to get this information. The Better Business Bureau Wise (BBB) Giving Alliance also offers information about national charities. Call 703-276-0100 or go towww.give.org.

Ask for written information. Legitimate charities will be happy to provide details about what they do and will never insist that you act immediately.

Beware of sound-alikes. Some crooks try to fool people by using names that are very similar to those of legitimate, well-known charities

Ask about the caller’s relation to the charity. The caller may be a professional fundraiser, not an employee or a volunteer. Ask what percentage of donations goes to the charity and how much the fundraiser gets.

Be especially cautious after natural or other disasters. Fraudulent charities take advantage of those situations to trick people who want to aid the victims.  If you’re not sure whether a charity is legitimate, check it out with your state charities regulator and the BBB before you donate.

Be wary of requests to support police or firefighters. Some fraudulent fundraisers claim that donations will benefit police or firefighters, when in fact little or no money goes to them. Be wary of any claims that your donation will get you "special treatment" from these organizations. Contact your local police or fire department directly to verify fundraiser claims.

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