It’s the most wonderful time of the year – if you are a scam artist! We hate to be downers all the time, but we feel it’s our job to warn you of bad things, give you good free legal advice, and help keep you and your family safe. That is the whole point of this blog.
Scam artists (why do we call these evil criminals “artists”?) are more active during the holiday season than at any other time of year. They are seeking to take advantage of your charitable urges. Those charitable urges get stoked during the holidays, and scam artists are ready to profit if you aren’t careful.
But that doesn’t mean you should avoid charitable giving. Charities also rely on this time of year to make their money. You just have to be smart about it, and follow some basic rules. In this post, we will explain how to avoid getting scammed by giving to a charity. It is actually easier to do this in Maryland than other states, as we will show you. We will also warn you of some common scams to be on the lookout for. Read on for all the details.
Research First – Maryland has an easy way to check up on a legitimate charity through the Maryland Secretary of State’s Office Charitable Organization Division. The Maryland Solicitations Act requires all charities soliciting donations in Maryland to register and file certain documents regarding their finances. You can look up any legitimate Maryland charity on the Secretary of State’s website at this link. If they are not there, you should be very careful about donating to them.
The only exceptions to the registration requirements are religious organizations, and those that solicit only from their own members. However, because the registration requirement is so easy for any charity, there is really no excuse for a charity not to be registered. Unless you are really sure who is behind it, don’t give to an organization not on that list.
If the charity you are giving to is registered with the Better Business Bureau, you can check them out on their website by following this link to their Wise Giving Aliance. That will tell you more than a dry government required filing form will tell you.
Another good place to check out a charity is through a private entity called charitynavigator.org. They only list valid charities, and they provide information as to how much of your donation will go to overhead versus real programs. As a general rule of thumb, don’t give to an organization that uses more than 25% of its donations for overhead.
Door to Door Solicitations – There are many good organizations that come and ring your doorbell. Unfortunately, there are also many phonies who do the same thing. They may wear uniforms, dress like Santa, have badges that look official, and have fake documents.
Our advice is not to hand these people cash. You should take the information about the charity and mail a check – after you do your research to make sure it is a legitimate charity. Also, take the solicitors information. Get their name, their business number, and take a picture of them with your cell phone. If they are legit, they won’t mind that. If some door to door solicitor doesn’t want their picture taken, you should be very suspicious.
Fire Departments – In Charles County and St. Mary’s County, we rely on local volunteer fire departments to save our lives in an emergency. They get a lot of their money through Christmastime donation drives. Often, they go door to door. Unfortunately, some unsavory characters have taken advantage of that in the past, and may do so in the future.
Several years ago, some guy claiming to be affiliated with one of the volunteer fire departments was getting cash donations and pocketing the money. He went to jail. If someone shows up at your door claiming to be from the local fire department, check his or her credentials, and get a receipt. If you feel uneasy about it, call the fire department (the local number – not 911) to ask about the person. In any event, don’t give them cash. If you are really convinced they are legitimate, write a check.
Beware a firefighter charity with a general sounding name. In Montana this year, an organization called the Firefighters Support Foundation sent mailers to thousands of people. They were a fake organization with a catchy sounding name. They formed an actual organization, so even if you wrote a check it didn’t protect you. They simply cashed the checks and pocketed all the money.
Telemarketers – This is a very busy time of year for cold calls from telemarketers soliciting charitable donations. Even if you are on the Federal Do Not Call list, you could get a call from a charity. They are exempt from the requirements of the Do Not Call law. So how do you know if they are real or fake when they call?
Unfortunately, there really is no way to know. They could lie about who they are. They could spoof their caller ID to look like they come from the real charity. They could use a name very similar to a charity you know well.
Our best advice is to never give money to a telemarketer who cold calls you. If you are moved by their sales pitch, and want to help their organization, you can still make the donation. Just do it by mail. Go to their website and get their address and mail it directly to them. Look them up on the Secretary of State’s website.
Whatever you do, don’t give your credit card number over the phone. It’s too risky.
Say No To Requests for your Social Security Number – There is no reason to give your social security number to a charity. They don’t need it. But some legitimate charitable organizations have inadvertently given out their donor’s social security numbers when they file forms with the IRS listing their sources of income. An identity thief can access these forms (which are public records) and get your social security number if you gave it up. Don’t do it.
Coming Up Next – Taking these precautions will make it much safer for you to donate to a charity during this holiday season. Next week, we will give you another list of holiday scams to avoid that don’t involve charitable solicitations. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of scams to report on.
Despite all that bad news, we wish you and your family a very safe and happy holiday season.