Beware of bogus storefront holiday fundraisers

Consumer Reports

While you’re out shopping for the holidays, you’re likely to run into storefront solicitors raising money for charity. And at this time of year, there’s a good chance you’ll want to open your wallet. But don’t assume that every fundraising effort is legitimate.

Washington State’s attorney general and secretary of state recently warned consumers and merchants that scammers sometimes present themselves as solicitors for real charities and simply pocket the donations. “These solicitors are taking money away from legitimate charities, so we want citizens and retailers to be aware of this emerging problem and avoid being scammed,” said Secretary of State Kim Wyman in a statement.

Earlier this year, a Washington organization that operated as a charity agreed to stop soliciting in the state after it was accused of misleading potential donors. It pretended to raise money to help families with autistic children through storefront solicitations and other fundraising methods. The state said that the group set up tables outside liquor and grocery stores and large national retailers, and provided buckets for cash donations and sold raffle tickets and small trinkets. Solicitors were instructed to tell potential donors that 100 percent of the proceeds would go to the charity when that wasn’t the case, and that they were volunteers, though they were being paid $80 to $100 a day.

There have also been reports of con artists posing as Salvation Army bell ringers.

Read "Make Sure Your Donation Counts" for more advice on how to determine whether a charity is worthy of your donation.

What to do. Don’t assume that a group soliciting outside a store is legitimate. If you’re uncertain, request identification. If it’s a well-known organization, such as the Salvation Army, ask the store manager whether the solicitor is authorized to be there, or contact the charity's local office.

If it’s a group you're not familiar with, ask for written material to review or check it out online, and donate through its website.

And remember that even if a solicitor is legitimate, the group he or she is fundraising for might not be doing much to support its charitable cause, so it pays to do a little investigating before giving. To check out national charities, read reports from the three major watchdogs: the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and Charity Watch. Some Better Business Bureaus also evaluate local charities. Or you can give through a fundraising federation, such as United Way, that prescreens groups.

Anthony Giorgianni

This article appeared in the December 201 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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