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Gulf Oil Spill Creates Surge of Charity Scams in Florida

Published Tuesday, July 6, 2010 2:00 am

TALLAHASSEE -- The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill has become the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history, and continues to adversely affect the lives of residents along the entire Gulf Coast. It is always uplifting to see Americans band together to help each other in such a catastrophe; however, it is disturbing to see the number of unscrupulous people who try to manipulate the misfortune of others for their own personal financial gain.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is issuing this “Consumer Alert” in an attempt to raise the awareness of potential fraud associated with charitable giving during this crisis. Whether the method of contact is by email, websites, fliers, mailings, telephone calls, or even door-to-door solicitations, there are two questions that consumers should ask themselves when considering donating to a charity that purports to be helping with relief efforts following a disaster:
 
1. Is the charity contacting me legitimate, or is it a scam? Unsolicited emails or phone calls asking for contributions are one of the biggest warning signs of a charity scam, as are high pressure appeals for donations. Legitimate fundraisers generally don’t push you to give on the spot. Unless a charity is a bona fide religious or educational institution, government agency or political group, they must register and file financial information with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

A little research on your part can go a long way. Before parting with any money, consumers are encouraged to inquire as to whether an organization soliciting contributions is properly registered. This can be accomplished by calling and speaking with a member of our Consumer Assistance Center staff at either 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352) when dialing from within Florida, or 850-488-2221 when dialing from outside the state. This can also be accomplished by visiting our website, and utilizing the “Gift Givers Guide”, an online database of registered charities and their financial information. 
 
In addition, avoid any charity or fundraiser that contacts you and:
 
-       refuses to provide written information about its identity, its mission, its costs, or how the donation will be used;
-       will not provide proof that a contribution is tax deductible;
-       uses a name that closely resembles that of a better-known, reputable organization;
-       thanks a potential donor for a pledge the person doesn’t remember making;
-       asks for bank account or credit card information before you’ve even agreed to contribute;
-       asks for donation in cash, or asks you to wire  your donation through a  money transfer service;
-       offers to send a courier or overnight delivery service to collect the donation immediately;
-       guarantees sweepstakes winnings in exchange for a contribution.
 
2. Would my money be better spent by donating elsewhere?  Even after determining that a particular charity is legitimate, considerable thought should be put into whether giving to this charity will mean that your money is being used as efficiently as possible. For example, in some instances the person who has contacted you is actually a paid fundraiser for the charity. In this case, it may be more efficient to avoid the middleman and contact the actual charity directly to make your donation. In another scenario, inexperienced or new charities attempt to come to the aid of the victims, and although they may have the best of intentions, they often lack the resources and infrastructure to get your donation to the affected area or people.

You should also ask a charity that has contacted you for their “CH” number or License/Registration number. Inputting this number or the name of the charity into the Gift Givers Guide mentioned above will help you to choose charities that spend your donations in the most efficient manner. When using this tool, consumers should pay particular attention to the percentage of money spent on “Program Services” versus the percentage spent on “Fundraising” and “Administrative Expenses”. Most importantly, once you’ve chosen a charity, avoid donating cash if possible. Paying by debit or credit card, or writing a check directly to the charity will offer you the most protection.
 
Remember, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is here for you – visit our website at www.800helpfla.com if you would like additional information, or call our Consumer Assistance Center. They will answer almost any question you may have or direct you to the best resource for assistance. If you are calling within Florida simply dial 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352), outside of Florida 850-488-2221 or en Español 1-800-FL-AYUDA (352-9832).

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