Hurricane Gustav wasn't as disastrous as feared, but it still did plenty of damage -- and, just a week later, it's hello Hanna, Ike and Josephine.
In times like these, there's likely to be a secondary storm of activity on your phone and in your e-mail inbox -- from con artists asking for money for fake police and fire funds. 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.
Recently I got some insider tips 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.
Just 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 that 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.
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 can use names very similar to those of real organizations to confuse you.
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. Utterly unscrupulous -- and untrue.
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.
Always ask fundraisers to identify themselves and ask whether they are paid solicitors. Some states require solicitors to provide this information right away.
Ask what percentage of your donation will go to professional solicitors versus what percent will go to the cause.
Find out whether your money will be used locally. If it's important to you, get that guarantee in writing.
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.
Better yet, ask for the name of the group and look the number up yourself.
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.
Keep in mind, just because a group is tax exempt (like a fraternal organization) that 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.
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.
Usually local police get all fired up about con artists using their name in vain. You can also contact your state attorney general.