Haiti Relief: Text Messages Speed Donations

American Red Cross, disaster relief orgs. accepting donations via text messages.

January 13, 2010, 11:27 AM

Jan. 14, 2010 — -- If you have logged on to Facebook or Twitter since the devastating Haiti earthquake Tuesday night, it is likely you saw messages like this:

"Text 'HAITI' to 90999 to donate $10 to Red Cross relief efforts!" or, "Text 'Yele' to 501501 to donate $5 to the Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund."

While both may seem like scams, mobile giving is legitimate, convenient and really that simple. Just send a text message right from your mobile device and you have donated to relief efforts.

The donation will be billed to your wireless account -- with no need to enter credit card information, log on to a Web site or even speak to an operator.

The Red Cross effort is being coordinated by the mGive Foundation, an organization that links charities with mobile carriers to enable donors to send small dollar amounts .

"It's microdonations by millions of people, adding up to an amount that can make a difference," said Tony Aiello, senior vice president at mGive.

Aiello said that many donors see the images of the disaster on television or on the Internet and are motivated by the ease with which they can contribute.

"So many people now recognize they can use their mobile phone to donate," he said. "It's an impulse give. You don't have to be sitting in front of [a] computer and can donate a small amount of money,"

The American Red Cross launched its mobile campaign at 9 p.m. on Tuesday and as of 10 a.m. on Thursday had raised $3.4 million just from text message donations.

This was, by far, the largest event in terms of mobile giving, Aiello said. Last year's "Keep the Child Alive" campaign on Fox's "American Idol" brought in $450,000 through mobile giving of $5 donations.

Even the Obama administration is steering Americans to mobile devices to donate to relief efforts in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti on Tuesday. On the White House Web site, people interested in donating can find information about how send money to the American Red Cross through its Web site or the 90999 text number.

Another charity that is getting a lot of buzz on Twitter and Facebook is the "Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund," the charity established by musician Wyclef Jean, formally of the Fugees. Jean, a native of Haiti, has been actively promoting his mobile giving site through television appearances.

Mobile Giving Drives Tap Into More Than 270 Million Potential Donors

There are more than 270 million mobile subscribers nationwide, according to data from the CTIA, the organization representing the wireless industry. Over 100 billion text messages are sent every month by American mobile users.

Recognizing the ease, convenience and prevalence of mobile phones, the Mobile Giving Foundation was established to link charities, mobile providers and donors. The non-profit organization has more than 400 charities on contract and 800 campaigns.

mGive, which does similar work, has more than 200 non-profits incorporating mobile technology into their daily operations.

"People are getting more familiar with using their phones for charitable giving," Aiello said.

Both organizations say that 100 percent of an individual donation goes directly to the charity for which it is intended.

All the major mobile carriers -- Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T -- participate in these charitable efforts and waive fees for text donations for an approved nonprofit organization through the Mobile Giving Foundation.

Jim Manis, the chairman and CEO of the Mobile Giving Foundation, said text message donations are attractive because they're quick and easy.

Manis cited three reasons why mobile donations are growing -- the growing population of mobile phone users, the immediacy of the response and the privacy of donating directly through a cell or smart phone.

"You have 280 million phone users in this country [and] about 260 million of them have text capability," Manis said. "From the immediacy standpoint -- people don't let their phone out of their sight. They're able to pick up that phone and respond as soon as they've received the request to do so."

Manis said that when crises hit, people are motivated to donate and making it as efficient as possible can only increase the charitable giving.

"It's an opportunity for individuals to make a difference. People do have an opportunity to give. These types of opportunities exist all the time," he said. "What mobile giving does is it opens up a whole new channel for participation by donors for causes. So it's easy and it's quick."

Roots in Hurricane Katrina Disaster

The American Red Cross developed, "Text 2HELP," where wireless customers can send a text message from their mobile phone to "2HELP" with the message "GIVE." A $5 donation will be made to the organization's disaster relief efforts.

Text 2HELP was established after Hurricane Katrina as a way for Americans quickly and efficiently to donate with little effort.

The Wireless Foundation, a non-profit organization aligned with CTIA, partnered with the American Red Cross to create a text message system that would allow for donations in the immediate aftermath of that disaster.

Recognizing its value and convenience, the system was made permanent and is activated when the Red Cross determines national support is needed for a disaster.

Donations go to the Red Cross' Disaster Relief Fund that provides food, counseling, shelter and other services to victims of disasters.

While there is no definitive study that looks at the demographics of who is donating via text messaging, Manis said it seems the donors mirror the demographics of mobile users.

"The demographics of texters are clear," he said. "Our donors typically are between 18 and 29."

But Manis said it would be wrong to dismiss older demographics when it comes to text messaging because old mobile users may be influenced by their children.

Donors are advised to pay attention and be smart to avoid scams.

Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, which produces reports on more than 1,200 nationally soliciting charitable organizations, said the immediate aftermath of a tragedy is prime time for scammers to try and take advantage of people who are in a generous mood.

"Those who are seeking to take advantage will do so very quickly because they know they need to strike when the iron is hot," he said.

In the first 24 hours after the earthquake in Haiti, the FBI already had received a handful of complaints about Web sites that could be fraudulent.

During major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, Internet con artists took advantage of the human tragedy and the public's willingness to donate by sending out spam e-mails and engineering phishing attacks with spoof e-mails and Web sites seeking "donations."

Donors might be scammed if their donation never gets to the intended charity or if only a percentage of it does. Or, scammers could lock donors into a subscription service, bill their account monthly and make it difficult to cancel the monthly fee.

Weiner said people who want to donate also need to be careful about electronic messages from bloggers or Web sites that may be soliciting donations.

"I would encourage people to check on their own so they can give with confidence," Weiner said. "Lots of organizations are going to be collecting donations. There are going to be choices."

How can someone tell the difference between a legitimate charity and a scam?

Weiner said one way is to stick to organizations that have an established reputation.

"You are going to want to find charities that already have the infrastructure and ability to distribute whatever immediate needs or good are needed in that country, in Haiti," he said. "If they are just a start-up, they may be well-intended and real -- but how are they going to actually be able to follow through?"

Weiner added that the donation needs are not just right now, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

"While it's important to give generously, don't think that it's only a one-time activity," Weiner said. "Charities are going to need your money down the road as well as now."

Weiner added that any questions about appeals that raise red flags can be directed to the BBB Wise Giving Alliance (www.bbb.org/charity).

ABC News' Daniel Arnall contributed to this report.

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