Tips for Avoiding Charity Scams on the Phone

VIDEO: Elisabeth Leamy and ShopSmart magazine point out five scams to watch out for.
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At this time of year, you're likely to be besieged by fundraisers trying to tap into your sense of the Christmas spirit. You may also feel compelled to give to charity before the end of the year in order to reap the tax benefits. So I want to write a few words about those who claim to be collecting money for police, firefighters and their families.

We all feel grateful when police officers and firefighters put their lives on the line to help us. That's exactly why con artists pose as police officers and firefighters and ask for money.

Not long ago I got some insights from a guy who had just quit working at one of these dishonest boiler rooms. He told me all the scammers use fake names when they call people on the phone. He said he and his colleagues regularly ignored laws that make it illegal to pose as a police officer or firefighter. He said the head of his operation routinely paid off the receptionist at the local fire department so she would lie and say the group was for real. And he explained that whenever he got a donation by claiming to be collecting money for the police, he would then give the number to a co-worker who would call back and try to get another donation by posing as a firefighter.

To make matters more confusing, real police and fire organizations typically use paid professional fundraisers to raise money for them. Even though these professionals are representing the real deal, it can still be a raw deal for you. Whenever there's a middleman, it means there's less money for the actual cause.

Here's another problem: sometimes legitimate public safety organizations collect money without guaranteeing that the funds will be used locally. Don't assume that your donation will help the firefighters down the street unless you ask.

KNOW THE SIGNS:

1. Keep in mind that groups that have nothing to do with police or firefighters, can put those words in their names to gain your sympathy. Plus, the fakers often use names very similar to those of real organizations to confuse you.

2. Scam artists posing as police or firefighters may tell you that you'll receive special treatment if you donate. For example, they may say posting the group's decal in the window of your car will help ward off tickets. It is utterly unscrupulous -- and untrue.

3. If you donate once, you will be bombarded with calls and letters asking you to donate again. The same group may claim it's been a year since you last gave. Or a different group may come calling claiming you've donated in the past. That's because con artists sell their sucker lists to each other.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK:

1. Always ask fundraisers to identify themselves and ask whether they are paid solicitors. Some states require solicitors to provide this information right away.

2. Ask what percentage of your donation will go to professional solicitors versus what percent will go to the cause.

3. Find out whether your money will be used locally. If it's important to you, get that guarantee in writing.

4. Ask the caller for a number you can call back after you've thought about it. Again, shady groups won't want to provide this.

5. Ask solicitors to provide detailed written information explaining how your money will be used. If the group is illegitimate, you'll never receive it and you'll have saved some money.

6. Keep in mind, just because a group is tax exempt, (like a fraternal organization) doesn't mean your contribution is tax deductible. Ask if it is. If so, get the group's tax ID number and make your check out to the official name of the organization -- not a go-between.

7. Before you give, contact your local police or fire department or the police or fire union to verify whether the solicitors who approached you really are raising money for them. Try to speak to somebody other than the initial receptionist who picks up the phone.

8. To check a charity's reputation, you can go to www.bbb.org, the website of the Better Business Bureau.

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