- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Consumer-protection agencies around the region said yesterday that it’s only a matter of time before scam artists begin to prey on people trying to contribute to tsunami-relief efforts in Asia.

“I would be absolutely shocked if by this time next week we don’t hear of scams,” said Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Mrs. Lidholm has no knowledge so far of such cases, but said the agency will investigate and forward them for prosecution to the Virginia Attorney General’s Office’s consumer-protection unit.

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, said that such cases are “fairly common.”

“We see it spike specifically following disasters, whether it’s here at home or after disasters worldwide,” he said.

Mr. Murtaugh advised donors to avoid giving credit-card information to telephone or door-to-door solicitors and to ask solicitors for information about the charity and its mission.

He said fund-raisers in Virginia are legally required to provide their names and the names of the charities for which they work. A database of charities registered with the state is posted at www.vdacs.virginia.gov/consumers.

The Web site of the Maryland secretary of state, at www.sos.state.md.us, also has a searchable database of registered charities, instructions for requesting records of charities and a form for filing online complaints.

The state government’s Charitable Organizations Division has a brochure, titled “Giving Wisely,” that alerts residents to disreputable collection practices.

The brochure states a typical scam is for solicitors to claim they represent charities whose names or logos closely resemble those of commonly known charities.

The solicitors might also offer to send someone in person to collect a contribution or send an invoice or statement showing a payment due for a pledge that was never made.

According to the charities division, organizations are required only to register with the state if they collect more than $25,000 in donations or employ paid solicitors. However, state officials warn that a registered charity does not mean the state has endorsed it.

Aja Foster, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said she was not aware of complaints about charity scams.

Traci Hughes, a spokeswoman for D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti, said the scams have yet to surface in the District, either.

Officials also pointed out that Internet resources can help determine whether a charity is legitimate.

One such resource is Charlottesville-based GuideStar, whose Web site, www.guidestar.org, provides a national database of nonprofit charitable organizations that includes financial holdings and recent tax returns.

Suzanne Coffman, a GuideStar spokeswoman, said that making a donation to a phone solicitor is always a bad idea.

“There are legitimate organizations that do phone solicitations, but it’s just too hard to verify that somebody is who they say they are,” she said. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with not being confident with someone who calls you and asks you to give over the phone.”

To conduct research on charities, Miss Coffman also recommended other Web sites, such as www.networkforgood.org and www.give.org, which is affiliated with the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance.

According to the alliance, a charity by definition must spend at least 65 percent of its total expenses on program activities.

Miss Coffman said that among international relief organizations 89.8 percent is the median program rate — or the amount of each dollar spent on program activities.

She said that organizations could have a variety of legitimate reasons for lower rates, but that donors should still examine the organization more closely.

“If I saw a program rate below 89 percent, it would make me think twice,” Miss Coffman said.

She recommends donating to experienced organizations in cases of disaster relief.

Donna Bigler, a spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, said that to prevent scams the county has endorsed donating to the American Red Cross and put a link on its Web site to enable residents to contribute.

“It’s an organization that has been around for a long time,” she said. “We know that they are going to do this. They have the distribution method in place. I think the money will be put to good use.”



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