Helpers/Schmelpers……You’re not a real charity!

This week’s introduction comes from none other than Mr. Rogers, who – when confronted with unexplainable trouble or tragedy – considered the words of his mother:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” 

Despite the fact that these words were uttered decades ago, they are no less true these days when sad stories seem to have a ‘and-you-thought-nothing-could-top-this’ edge to them.  It certainly helps to process things, when you are able to focus on those selfless and considerate souls who manage to provide help, comfort or actual salvation to those in need. 

Today, we are going to look at those people who seem to have designed their industry model on the reassuring words of Mrs. Rogers, “Look for the Helpers…….”  Not because they, themselves are trying to understand a situation.  Unfortunately, we are speaking about the folks who hope to capitalize on our collective need to understand and to provide help, in the aftermath of a crisis.  We are speaking about those who pretend to be ‘The Helpers’ so that they can make a little cash.  Those are the people who run fake charities.

Fake Charities only help themselves

Fake charities are those UNworthy causes, that spring up in the days after some unspeakable event happens, trying to take advantage of our confusion and good will.  They know that most people are more likely to contribute to a charity, right after tragedy strikes.  Perhaps it’s human nature? When we see a tragedy, it eases our pain to do something tangible to help the victims.

Let’s set the stage, you’re watching the news about how a small company in Virginia went out of business, because their corporate offices were overrun by giant, poisonous millipedes.  You think to yourself, “If only I could help those people.” And then, the phone rings.

“Hello, this is Marvin with ‘Save Corporate America from Millipedes. We’re a charitable organization that was created to save small businesses from the scourge of an out-of-control millipede population. It’s so tragic when someone loses their income to a creature that can cause such devastation, while being so incredibly creepy.  Our government has overlooked this problem for way too long.  Since we are just a small non-profit, we are more nimble than larger organizations. You can be sure that nearly 100% of our proceeds will provide direct help to those folks who are most affected by the Millipedes.  Won’t you help today?”

Of course, you’re going to think twice about giving to these fools.  Not only are you pretty sure that Millipedes aren’t that dangerous – but, the acronym for the charity’s name is ‘SCAM’. However, when people get calls from a fake charity, the clues are not usually so straightforward.  The company on the phone sounds legit; the name often has a ring to it, like ‘Every child is an Angel,’ or ‘Victims relief wish fund.’ And, the call almost always comes on the heels of some tragedy.  

So, how do you make sure that you don’t send your money to the wrong place?  

There may not be any one test that you can use on the phone to figure out if a solicitor is from a real charity.  But, many of these put together can protect you from sending your hard-earned cash to someone who is only going to help themselves.  Here are a few tips to help you decide which causes are worthy enough to get your charitable donations:

    • Give yourself a week: in nearly every tragedy, the need for donations will be as great one month after the crisis as it will be the next day.  Many times, fake-charity-scammers try to pressure you into making an immediate donation. Phrases like “donate now, so we can provide help right away,” or “each minute you wait could cost a life,” or “the sooner you act, the sooner we can help” are all lies that are geared to get you to let your guard down and make a payment, right away. (think of it this way: if you were somehow able to drive your cash payment to the site of the tragedy and give it to somebody that night – it would probably still take a few weeks to be put to use. If you sit on your checkbook for another week, it won’t make much of a difference);
    • Ask a few pointed questions: These are all questions that a legitimate charity should be willing to answer.  (However, just being able to give you an answer doesn’t make them legitimate.  Whether they seem to be searching for the truth; whether they answer quickly and what their attitude is will also tell you a lot) 
      • What is the name and address of your charity?
      • How much of the donation will go to the victims?
      • When did you become a charity?
      • Where online can I see a copy of your IRS letter?

After they answer your questions, try doing some research to verify their answers.

    • Who are they, REALLY?:  Would you buy a radio from someone on the street without opening up the box to look at the goods?  Heck no!  So, don’t be afraid to spend at least some time researching a so-called non-profit to make sure they’re real.  If you want to help victims, that’s great. But, even a minimal amount of research can help you determine that the ‘needy kids’ you are helping are really a group of children whose father is a scam artist looking to make some extra cash. It’s not enough to just find a website. (Note that in the hours after the Boston Marathon tragedy, there were 125 new charity domain names registered; and within two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, there were 4,600 new ‘charity’ websites, most of which were bogus) Here are some resources to use to see how legitimate that charity is
      • The Better Business Bureau’s ‘Wise Giving Alliance’  may open your eyes about a charity; 
      • The Federal Trade Commission has a very informative page that will help; 
      • If you go to Guidestar, you can actually see the forms that the charity files with the IRS, including the 990, which shows the number of employees and Income & Expenses. (Hint: If there was no 990 filed, it’s probably not legitimate)
      •  Google is always helpful. Try typing in the EXACT name of the charity and the word “Scam” or “Fraud.” You might be surprised.
    • Use a check:  Many scam artists will try to trick you into giving them your credit card number, your checking account number or some other personal information.  You should tape the phrase “Send me something in the mail and I’ll look it over,” on the wall above your phone.  If they say “We don’t send letters out and prefer not to take checks – that’s how we keep our costs down, ” don’t buy it. 
      • First of all, a check is probably one of the only ways to remember who you paid and how much;
      • Second, credit card, debit card, and electronic check (giving your checking account number over the phone) payments to bogus charities are nearly impossible to trace AND give the scammer the ability to try and rip you off at another time;
      • Third, if you write a check, you will have a record of the address;
      • Fourth, writing a check gives you yet another chance to think twice.
    • Mobile-Schmobile: We at Consumer Courage realize that our society is careening toward a reality where phone payments and other mobile manipulations are the rule, rather than the exception. But, for the meantime, don’t get cute.  If you try to donate by sending a text (or making a phone payment) to the wrong person, you just might end up with a charge on your phone bill that could take months to get rid of.  If you’re donating to charity, go old-school and get out the checkbook.

The most important thing is to remember those two words that will protect you from a great many scams and schemes that are out there:  GO……..SLOWLY.  And, if you’re really looking for a charity that is legitimate (and passes all of our tests!), try the Cleveland Courage Fund. It was set up by three Cleveland Council-members in the wake of the story that has been the lead in just about every newscast that Consumer Courage has seen for the last week.  The money will be administered – without any of the usual fees – by the Cleveland Foundation and is one of the few charities, where you know that 100% of the donations will go to the victims. 

Make no mistake, Consumer Courage is not asking you to be a Helper.  But if you do, don’t be afraid to help, very carefully.

Posted by: Mark Wiseman