- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2005

Consumer protection agencies across the region and around the country are warning people looking to contribute to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts to beware of scam artists.

“We probably always expect it to happen,” said J. Michael Wright, manager of regulatory programs in the Office of Consumer Affairs for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “We know that people will try and benefit from such a disaster. The public needs to be aware and do their research.”

In Florida, Attorney General Charlie Crist filed a civil lawsuit against a Nassau County man who registered several domain names for Web sites and solicited donations for hurricane relief.

Officials said the donations that went to the sites — which included www.katrinahelp.com and www.katrinarelief.com — were to be directed to the man’s private online account. Robert E. Moneyhan, 51, faces penalties of $10,000 per violation.

Locally, four persons were arrested in Fairfax County last week for operating a roadside scam claiming to collect money for Hurricane Katrina. Police said the suspects approached motorists and pedestrians, said they represented specific charities and solicited donations.

The suspects were charged with misdemeanor solicitation violations and released on a summons to appear in court.

Mr. Wright said most relief-related scams originate in e-mails containing links to phony organizations. He said some even contain links directing donors to bogus Red Cross sites.

Officials said consumers always should validate the charity requesting the money, request information on how the charity plans to assist victims, and simply use common sense when choosing which organization to support.

“The bottom line is check out the charity before you write the check,” Mr. Wright said. “Know who you’re contributing to.”

Traci Hughes, a spokeswoman for D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti, said donors should send checks instead of cash when giving monetary donations and be especially wary of giving money to phone solicitors.

“Consumers should not feel like they have to respond right away,” she said. “They can take a name and number.”

Miss Hughes said the scams have yet to surface in the District, but may appear in the near future.

Officials also said consumers can check Internet resources to help determine whether a charity is legitimate.

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

Another company, the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP), grades charity organizations from A to F on its Web site, www.charitywatch.org. The site also contains a list of recommended Katrina relief organizations.

“Look for a track record of being able to help in a crisis; look for groups that are able to give 70 percent of their cash to the crisis,” AIP President Daniel Borochoff said. “Find out how the group is using the cash because any group can look impressive.”

Mr. Borochoff also advises consumers to give money to lesser-known but still legitimate organizations.

“People need to go beyond the Red Cross and realize we need to use all our charitable resources to combat this disaster,” he said. “There are many organizations that go beyond front-line emergency relief that can really help these people.”

Consumers also can check the validity of an organization at www.bbb.org, the Web site of the Better Business Bureau. A database of charities registered in Virginia is posted at www.vdacs.virginia.gov/consumers, and a searchable database of charities registered in Maryland is available at www.sos.state.md.us.

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