08 March 2013

Charity Scams

I received a phone call from a nice enough telemarketer calling himself "John" collecting money for The Autistic Society Fund and thanking me for prior donations, of which I was unaware of making. He was quick to inform me about the rising endemic of autism among children.  I steered the conversation to the speculation of the causes of autism and why it is ostensibly on the rise. This provoked "John" to warmly discuss vaccines, food additives, and chemicals. I then asked about the charity itself and the company he works for.

He casually admitted that he doesn't work for The Autistic Society Fund, as there is no charity actually called this, but instead is a telemarketer for Good Charity, Inc and that The Autistic Society Fund is one of a number of funds run by Good Charity, Inc. that donates money to a variety of causes. I encouraged him to discuss the charity with casual phrases like, "Well, my donation would also help keep you employed, right?" 

I asked how much of my donation would be contributed to actual autism research. He responded that "about 15% of the funds we collect get sent directly to the charity."  I asked which charity would receive that 15%, the Autism Society, for example.  But he replied, "The Autism Society Fund."

At this point I felt that there was no way I was going to contribute money until I did a little more research. I asked "John" about the Good Charity, Inc.'s track record and the various charities they provide telemarketing services for.

At this point, he indicated that his boss was encouraging him to end the phone call to "move on to other prospects".  Obviously, telemarketers work on a for-profit basis. They are not volunteers. Like miners prospecting for gold, I was one of thousands of mines they were probing for excavation.

I was particularly curious about this specific "charity" and its link to the various "charities" it claims to support.

In January the Better Business Bureau (BBB) issued a press release with a severe warning regarding Good Charity, Inc.'s tactics and its connection to Insight Teleservices, Inc.   According to the BBB report:
Good Charity is an umbrella organization for 10 related organizations with names suggestive of the kinds of causes or people they assist. The names include:
  • Terminally Ill Children’s Fund
  • United States Paralyzed Veterans Fund
  • Children’s Leukemia of America Fund
  • National Breast Cancer Awareness Fund
  • Disabled Veteran Wheelchair Games
  • Michigan Disabled and Paralyzed Veterans Fund
  • Disaster Relief and Aid Fund
  • Disabled and Paralyzed Veterans Fund
  • America’s Missing Children Fund
  • The Autistic Society Fund
The BBB release links Good Charity, Inc. run by Brian Maiorana to Insight Teleservices, Inc. for whom  Brian Maiorana used to work.  As the BBB noted, "A contract between Good Charity and Insight calls for Insight to retain 85 percent of the funds it raises for the charity. In 2011, Good Charity reported that it received just $180,000 from the $1.4 million Insight raised on its behalf that year. The charity made grants of $75,000, or about five cents for each dollar in donations."

The shady practices of Insight Teleservices, Inc. can be traced back to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article claiming that the company donated only 14 cents for every dollar collected to charity.  "In 2005, Insight cold-called Wisconsin residents and raised about $812,500 on the charity's behalf. Of that, the group got about $113,750, according to its annual report. Insight kept the rest - 86%."  While technically this type of practice is not illegal it is highly unethical.  The company is essentially taking advantage of our innate desire to help others in order for individuals within the company to prosper.  Unfortunately there are no laws that protect donors from falling prey to the predatory practices that companies like Good Charity, Inc. are employing.  

As for Good Charity and its link to autism research, its website claims to donate money to the CT Autism Spectrum Resource Center (ASRC), although it lists this non-profit organization as the Connecticut Autism Resource Center.  Good Charity claims to have donated to the ASRC since 2012 because "The Autistic Society Fund’s director Brian Maiorana decided to financially support" programs as unique as its “Parent Advocacy Boot camp”.

The ASRC is indeed holding a Boot Camp for autism advocates in 2013.  This is highly misleading.  Good Charity's website uses legitimate information that can be independently verified to support Good Charity's claims that it contributes to the ASRC.

The ASRC itself refused to respond to inquiries regarding the cold-calling tactics of groups like Good Charity and may or may not be illicitly involved.

As it turns out, though, I'm not the first to have received a phone call from Good Charity or to question its intentions.  James Albert Trankle is the Pastor of the Holy Land Spiritual Church and a former Professional Fund-raiser for Police, Fire, Veteran, Medical and Children's Charities.  His book, Badge Fraud, details his experience trying to fight charity fraud.  He's left a massive trail of letters, emails, and news stories that link Brian Maiorana to Ben Scott and to several different telemarketing companies claiming to have charitable motivations but are really just simple scams.

The prevalence of charity fraud has risen to such high levels and for such nefarious purposes that in 2009 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), together with 61 Attorneys General, Secretaries of State, and other law enforcers of 49 states and the District of Columbia, launched “Operation False Charity.” However, their investigations particularly targeted companies falsely claiming to perform fundraising activities for veterans groups, police associations, firefighters.  The FTC does offer myriad suggestions on how to donate safely and "to avoid fraudsters who try to take advantage of your generosity."

Indicative of the ongoing difficulties in fighting seemingly ever-present charity fraud, in 1998 the FTC along with, 40 states, and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) today announced “Operation Missed Giving,” a sweeping nationwide campaign against fraudulent fundraising. The FTC indicated then that they would "target telephone fundraisers who misrepresent ties with police departments, fire fighters, veterans groups, childrens’ health organizations, and other community organizations and it seeks to educate consumers about things they can do to help decide whether the caller on the phone is someone they want to give money to." In 2003, the FTC launched "Operation Phoney Philanthropy".  Previously there was the related "Operation Missed Fortune" in 1996, "Operation False Alarm" in 1997, and as recent as last year the FTC issued warnings that "scams often follow disasters."

Much like their counterparts in higher education, the ubiquitous diploma mills, charity fraudsters are difficult to fight.  The common divisor in these cases is that crooks make a lot of money and leave trails that are hard to trace making prosecution next to impossible.  They often employ various addresses and seldom reveal their actual identity instead hiding behind the name of a reasonable sounding charity, like The Autistic Society Fund.  Many of these operate as limited liability companies that shelter partners from direct liability and make criminal practices hard to pin on the perpetrators.  Much like what happens in other scams, the perpetrators of charity scams modify the names of their companies fairly often and as in the case of Good Charity, utilize names that sound familiar and include information that can be verified independently. 

A little incredulity goes a long way 

Before giving to a charity, the FTC recommends that
regardless of how they reach you, avoid any charity or fundraiser that:
  • Refuses to provide detailed information about its identity, mission, costs, and how the donation will be used.
  • Won't provide proof that a contribution is tax deductible.
  • Uses a name that closely resembles that of a better-known, reputable organization.
  • Thanks you for a pledge you don’t remember making.
  • Uses high-pressure tactics like trying to get you to donate immediately, without giving you time to think about it and do your research.
  • Asks for donations in cash or asks you to wire money.
  • Offers to send a courier or overnight delivery service to collect the donation immediately.
  • Guarantees sweepstakes winnings in exchange for a contribution. By law, you never have to give a donation to be eligible to win a sweepstakes.

It's fairly clear that Good Charity, Inc. and its affiliate Insight Teleservices, Inc. are out to capitalize on American's generosity and kindness and rip off the best of the lot.  Unsurprisingly, confidence men have been running these kinds of schemes and scams since the invention of trade.

Charity Checklist

If you are contacted by telemarketers imploring for your donation, the BBB recommends the following strategy for donors:
    • If you are solicited by a telemarketer, ask the names of both the fundraiser making the call and the charity he or she is representing.  Ask how much of your contribution goes to the charity and how much is retained by the fundraiser.
    • If you are solicited by mail, understand that a portion of your contribution may go to a for-profit company hired to run the campaign.  Call the fundraiser or charity and ask how much of your money the charity will receive.
    • Contact the charity to find out how it uses donations from the public.  Will it provide direct aid to families, buy medical supplies or be used for education or research?

    The FTC has also published an extensive checklist:

    Take the following precautions to make sure your donation benefits the people and organizations you want to help.
    • Ask for detailed information about the charity, including name, address, and telephone number.
    • Get the exact name of the organization and do some research. Searching the name of the organization online — especially with the word “complaint(s)” or “scam”— is one way to learn about its reputation.
    • Call the charity. Find out if the organization is aware of the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name. The organization’s development staff should be able to help you.
    • Find out if the charity or fundraiser must be registered in your state by contacting the National Association of State Charity Officials.
    • Check if the charity is trustworthy by contacting the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Watch, or GuideStar.  Sign up for a free account with GuideStar where you can find a non-profit's 990 forms, key figures involved in the organization, and read and provide reviews.  The 990 tax forms indicate funds received and often compensation of the top earners of the organization.
    • Ask if the caller is a paid fundraiser. If so, ask:
      • The name of the charity they represent
      • The percentage of your donation that will go to the charity
      • How much will go to the actual cause to which you’re donating
      • How much will go to the fundraiser
    • Keep a record of your donations.
    • Make an annual donation plan. That way, you can decide which causes to support and which reputable charities should receive your donations.
    • Visit this Internal Revenue Service (IRS) webpage to find out which organizations are eligible to receive tax deductible contributions.
    • Know the difference between “tax exempt” and “tax deductible.” Tax exempt means the organization doesn’t have to pay taxes. Tax deductible means you can deduct your contribution on your federal income tax return.
    • Never send cash donations. For security and tax purposes, it’s best to pay by check — made payable to the charity — or by credit card.
    • Never wire money to someone claiming to be a charity. Scammers often request donations to be wired because wiring money is like sending cash: once you send it, you can’t get it back.
    • Do not provide your credit or check card number, bank account number or any personal information until you’ve thoroughly researched the charity.
    • Be wary of charities that spring up too suddenly in response to current events and natural disasters. Even if they are legitimate, they probably don’t have the infrastructure to get the donations to the affected area or people.
    • If a donation request comes from a group claiming to help your local community (for example, local police or firefighters), ask the local agency if they have heard of the group and are getting financial support.
    • What about texting? If you text to donate, the charge will show up on your mobile phone bill. If you've asked your mobile phone provider to block premium text messages — texts that cost extra — then you won't be able to donate this way.
    In general, if you want to donate to a cause, skip the telemarketer approach and contact the non-profit organization directly but don't stop donating just hesitate before giving.

    Also visit Charity Navigator, a non-profit that rates the effectiveness of over 6,000 charities and whose mission is to "guide intelligent giving."

    In general, as in almost every endeavor, keep participating but practice incredulity.

    Links for donating to legitimate autism research:

    The Autism Society

    No comments:

    Post a Comment