Veterans groups are warning the public to distinguish between their legitimate efforts to support returning American troops, and the questionable motives of a rogue group called the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, which is being investigated in at least nine states on allegations of fraud and deception.
The group and its fugitive leader, who went by the name Bobby Thompson and is the subject of a nationwide manhunt, was described by Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as doing "in the charitable sphere what Bernie Madoff did in the investment sphere. It's shocking, and it's discouraging and it's depressing to think so many people wanted to give to veterans and in fact they were giving to this man and his sham organization."
Thompson collected as much as $100 million over the past decade from donors who thought they were contributing to a legitimate veterans service organization, according to Cordray, and 99 percent of the funds are now unaccounted for. After last night's ABC News report on Thompson, legitimate veterans groups said they were stepping up their efforts to alert the public about the alleged scam, and help those seeking to help veterans identify legitimate ways to do so.
"The Bobby Thompson scam has caused significant damage to small non-profits and we hope the Ohio attorney general finds him and prosecutes him," said Paul Sullivan, of Veterans for Common Sense.
Sullivan called the alleged rip off an outrage. "If he were truly in the Navy, we would keelhaul him," he told ABC News.
"As a Navy veteran I am deeply angered by the actions of someone who would defraud Veterans and Americans who support them," said Robert Jackson, executive director of Military Families United, a national military advocacy organization. "The actions of this anti-patriot should not be tolerated and it is my hope that he will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Perhaps most concerned were the directors of The Navy and Marine Association, which is a legitimate charitable group with a name very similar to the one being investigated by state authorities. The Navy and Marine Association, which operates a website at Navymarineassociation.org, describes itself as "active duty, retired military and proud Americans, who serve without compensation. We are volunteers, who provide support for Sailors and Marines and their families."
It is not associated in any way with the allegedly fraudulent group, the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.
Tips For Avoiding Charity Scams
Another legitimate group dedicated to supporting American Veterans, the Bob Woodruff Foundation, has distributed a checklist of steps to take to prevent being scammed:
Top 10 Best Practices of Savvy Donors
1) Be Proactive In Your Giving
Take time to identify which causes are most important to you and your family.
2) Hang Up The Phone / Eliminate The Middleman
Hang up, investigate the charity on-line and send contributions directly to the charity, thereby cutting out the middleman and ensuring 100 percent of your donation reaches the charity.
3) Be Careful Of Imposters and Sound-Alike Names
Donors are easily confused by charities that have deceptively similar names to others. Uncover the difference.
4) Confirm 501(c) (3) Status
Only support groups granted tax-exempt status under section 501(c) (3) of the IRS Code – and remember to take the tax deduction.
5) Check The Charity's Commitment To Donor's Rights
6) Obtain Copies Of Its Financial Records
Financial health is a strong indicator of the charity's performance. The most efficient charities spend at least 75 percent of their budget on programs and services and less than 25 percent on fundraising and administrative fees. Seek out charities that are able to grow their revenue, that continue to invest in their programs and that have some money saved for a rainy day.
7) Review Executive Compensation
Charities need to pay their top leaders a competitive salary in order to attract and retain the kind of talent needed to run a multi-million dollar organization and produce results. However, it's smart to benchmark it against similar-sized organizations engaged in similar work and located in the same region of the country.
8) Start A Dialogue To Investigate Its Programmatic Results
It takes some effort to assess a charity's programmatic impact, but it's worth the time. Talk with the charity to learn about its accomplishments, goals and challenges. Walk away from a charity that is unable or unwilling to participate in this conversation.
9) Concentrate Your Giving
If you've really taken the time to identify a well-run charity that is engaged in a cause that you are passionate about, you should then feel confident in giving it a donation.
10) Share Your Intentions And Make A Long-Term Commitment
Only with long-term, committed supporters can a charity be successful.