- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2001

The generosity of Americans donating to relief efforts in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks hasn't escaped the notice of con men and scam artists looking to profit from the country's grief.
Better Business Bureau officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District have urged people to give wisely and ask questions especially of those soliciting donations over the phone for seemingly worthwhile causes. Maryland and Virginia keep records of registered charities and how much goes to administrative costs, including telemarketers, and how much reaches the target of the donations.
"On average, only a third of the telemarket pledge gets to the objective of the giving," said Daniel Borochoff, president of America's Institute of Philanthropy in Bethesda. "We urge people to find out who they are giving to . It's a slippery slope."
"Most telephone calls are professional solicitations," said Michael Wright, a manager in Virginia's Office of Consumer Affairs. "The charity typically gets 10 cents on the dollar."
"Historically, when a disaster hits, there are scam artists who come in and take advantage of people," he said.
Residents in the Charlottesville area recently complained about calls from the Virginia Firefighters Foundation and the Virginia Firefighters Association. Mr. Wright said the foundation is registered, but the association is not, and the telemarketers in Florida have not responded to calls for explanations.
"We are encouraging the public to be aware," said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance in Arlington. Mr. Weiner explained that the alliance is receiving many inquiries about solicitors on telephone, door-to-door, and even Internet e-mails since Sept. 11.
"There will always be that little portion of people who take advantage of a disaster like this," said Devorah Goldburg, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, which has collected $256 million in a Liberty Fund especially for families of the terrorists' victims.
"Ninety-nine percent [of charitable fund-raisers] out there are legitimate," Ms. Goldburg said. "If citizens don't feel comfortable [giving], don't do it."
Legitimate solicitors probably will not shy away from questions, Mr. Weiner said, explaining that some prospective donors he knew asked about the organization and how the money would be used.
"When some asked for details, the telemarketer would hang up," Mr. Weiner said.
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., whose office would prosecute scam artists, was quick to warn citizens not to give cash and to make certain they are giving to a legitimate fund-raiser. Officials of all jurisdictions advised donors to give their credit-card numbers only to organizations that they know and trust.
If uncertain about a fund-raiser, postpone giving until it can be examined, Mr. Weiner warned. A donor can always send in a check later, he said.
"There are individuals who take advantage of situations like this," said Nicki Kassolis, spokeswoman for Maryland's secretary of state, which keeps the register of fund-raising organizations and how much of their receipts go to pay administrative and solicitation costs.
Then there are the outright thefts.
Six days after the terrorist attacks, a 6-foot, 190-pound black man with mustache and bushy eyebrows grabbed a American Red Cross donation box and fled from a 7-11 store in Waldorf, Md.
On Sunday, a 5-foot, 8-inch black man weighing 250 pounds held out a Red Cross donation can to a 17-year-old boy sitting in a Ford Taurus in a Glen Burnie, Md., parking lot. When the boy indicated he did not want to donate, the man pulled out a silver-colored handgun and took the boy's checkbook, containing cash and credit cards.
To learn about legal charities, Virginians can call 800/552-9963; Maryland residents can contact 800/825-4510, and in the District, call the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs at 202/442-4311.

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