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Holiday Scams Abound. Be Prepared!

by Elliott Greenblott

Is it a scam or a legitimate fund raiser? As the holidays are here, so too are the unending emails, letters, and telephone calls soliciting donations. While most of these are legitimate, it is necessary to apply common sense and reason to your responses and willingness to donate.  Fundraising and charity appeals are usually designed to evoke an empathetic or sympathetic response by triggering emotions can be powerful. Unsure about this; consider the relatively recent increase in the number of television fund raising advertisements for hospitals or animal rescue programs. In deciding whether or not the appeal is a scam, do a little research. Where is the charity located? Do they have a physical address? Can you verify the information with a call-back to a verified phone number?

While many large charities use employees or volunteers to raise funds, a growing trend is the use of professional fund-raisers to contact the public for donations. This approach is used by small non-profits that do not have adequate staff or volunteers to conduct fundraising on their own. You may have been contacted by one of these fund-raising groups by phone – a professional police or firefighter’s association. In studying the topic, I reached out to Christopher Curtis, Chief of the Public Protection Division of the Vermont Attorney General’s office. Chris noted that there are no prohibitions on association or non-profit fundraising. These activities can include “boot” coin drops by volunteer firefighters or sophisticated letter, email or telephone campaigns. But Chris also notes that non-profits must be registered as such with the office of the Secretary of State. In addition, professional fundraisers must register their campaigns and pay a fee to the office of the Attorney General. 

As a potential donor, you may also want to know if your donation is tax-deductible as an IRS  501(c)(3) organization. Two additional conditions apply to professional fundraising. The solicitor must disclose in a “clear and conspicuous manner” that he or she is a professional fundraiser and what percentage of the donation actually ends up with the charity. The caller often does not immediately volunteer this information and it may be necessary to ask him or her directly. I was recently solicited for a donation to a regional law enforcement non-profit. I asked the two questions – are you a professional fundraiser and how much of my donation goes to the organization?  The answers – yes, I am a professional; the group receives 14% of the donations collected. I contacted two groups using professional fundraisers for their feedback. Both were aware of the limited amount of money that would be received, but also felt that without the use of professionals they would face financial difficulties. 

This leads to the question – are these fundraisers committing a scam? Whether or not you agree, these are not scams as long as they meet the State requirements for fundraising. Your decision to respond to the solicitation is yours to make but if you decide to contribute, apply the following considerations. The safest form of payment is credit card; never pay with gift cards. Payment by check is less safe, but still offers some protection. (A legitimate fundraiser will not ask you to make your donation with a gift card or a wire transfer). Request that you be sent a donation form or flyer. Above all, don’t be afraid to tell the caller – NO!

If all of this seems a bit too complicated and too much of a roadblock to making contributions there is another approach to take. Disregard the solicitations and check out the groups that operate in your community. A direct donation to the local volunteer firefighters, library, or senior center can provide much needed support where the entire donation can be applied to the needs of the group or community. Also, to see if a charity is legit, go to Charitywatch.org to look them up or contact the AARP Fraud Watch Network Help Line at 877-908-3360for advice, resources and tips. Questions, comments, concern? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. 

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