Thursday, July 09, 2020

Bestselling author Frank Abagnale, formerly a con artist, recently released a book “Scam Me If You Can.” The movie “Catch Me If You Can” starring Leonardo DiCaprio is based on the “scamploits” (my word) of Abagnale and his book describes charity scams, among others, and how to avoid them, especially at this time of year.

According to Giving USA Foundation’s annual report, Americans donated more than $410 billion in philanthropic contributions in 2017. What a wonderful and charitable people we are! Yet, this enormous generosity also opened the door to abuse.

’Tis the season for nonprofits to reach out to donors and ask for donations. Many organizations bring in as much as 70% of their revenue in the last two or three months of the year. Many businesses also find that the last quarter is their “make or break” time.

This also is a precarious time because “charity-like” predators roam America and plot their sinister intentions. Nefarious crooks prey on innocent donors. This is why I declare: “Caveat Emptor,” or “Let the Buyer Beware.”

Everyone is familiar with the Nigerian prince email that promises a huge fortune. Just mail the prince or his charity a sum of money to redeem your riches. Believe it or not, many folks fall for this scam. As outrageous as it seems, there are trusting folks that take the bait—hook, line and sinker. Sad.

Then, there are the phone calls from kind-sounding telemarketers asking for a donation to the local boys or girls club. Some ask you to support the local police benevolent association or another honest-sounding organization. Regrettably, gullible folks ante up generous donations without performing their due diligence. It’s like pouring your hard-earned dollars into a bottomless pit.

As I write this column, we are in the midst of hurricane season. The Bahamas suffered through an unprecedented and destructive storm that laid waste to many Bahamian islands. It didn’t take long for evildoers to take advantage of the situation and create bogus charities to ensnare the unsuspecting.

Timing is everything and as we watched heart-wrenching images from the Bahamas, some dug into their pockets and donated to ill-conceived or counterfeit appeals. Disaster relief sometimes relieves you of your well-intended, but purloined, gifts.

In today’s technological age, philanthropists commonly are misled and contribute to non-existent charities. GoFundMe pages, Facebook pages and even websites are created by despicable individuals like the couple last year who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a “so-called” homeless veteran. All three were charged with theft and conspiracy to commit theft by deception. In some cases, expenses exceed revenues because funds are pocketed by scofflaws.

Fraud is not limited to the internet. Beware of slick miscreants who look and sound sincere and claim they represent charities but haven’t put into place a 501(c)3 non-for-profit organization. There are mandatory steps to create a not-for-profit following established IRS guidelines. They also must register as a charity in the state where they solicit, and sham charities don’t.

As a donor, give wisely and avoid charity scams. What a shame that authentic eleemosynary institutions that depend on your generosity lose because of scoundrels who defraud the innocent. So, what steps can consumers take to dodge the unscrupulous?

The AARP compiled a short list of common sense steps. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it is a critical one.

1. Never give in to pressure to make a gift right now. Legitimate charities welcome your gift any time.

2. Beware the thank you letter for a donation you didn’t make asking you to renew your gift. Fraudsters look for the naive and gullible.

3. Very few charities give 100% of contributions to services. This claim should raise your eyebrows.

4. Check charity watchdogs such as Charity Navigator, Guidestar or the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance to ascertain the legitimacy of a charity.

5. Research the charity—learn whether it does what it says.

6. Be wary of charities whose name or website mimics real ones.

7. Never offer personal information such as birthdate, social security number or bank account numbers. These are prime for misuse.

8. Contribute using a credit card or check. They have safeguards.

9. Never assume that pleas for help on social media are legitimate.

10. Be careful when clicking on links. These can unleash terrible viruses or malware.

What we don’t want are folks holding back and not giving to those genuinely in need. So, when making a donation, I ask you, do you want to help victims or do you want to become one?

Norman B. Gildin fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades and raised upwards of $93 million in the process. He lived in Teaneck for 34 years and now resides in Boynton Beach, Florida, and currently is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group. He can be reached at [email protected]