Watch out when donating, consumer advocates warn

Major charities collect for disaster victims, but con artists apt to emerge

Terrorism Strikes America

September 14, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Efforts by United Way of Central Maryland and other charities to raise money to help victims of the New York and Washington terrorist attacks are swinging into high gear, but consumer advocates warn givers to watch out for some who might have less-charitable intentions.

Several Baltimore-area charities have joined a nationwide effort coordinated by United Way and the New York Community Trust to deal with what they expect to be a long-term need for help in the disaster areas.

Corporations and foundations have pledged at least $16 million to the effort, called the September 11th Fund.

The Baltimore Community Foundation, United Way of Central Maryland, the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, Associated Black Charities, Associated Catholic Charities and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore all have signed on to the September 11th Fund effort, said Gigi Wirtz, communications officer for the community foundation.

Businesses `obliterated'

Her New York counterparts tell her that the need for aid is far-reaching.

"Scores of small businesses were obliterated -- florists, delis, you name it, they're just gone," said Wirtz. "We want people to know of this fund's existence because it is a coordinated effort at ground zero."

At the same time, fraud experts are warning givers to be on the lookout for the other sort of collectors: crooks looking to make a quick buck.

"Whenever there is a tragedy -- many times, an injury to a police officer or the death of fire personnel -- there have been scam artists that attempt to take advantage of the public's emotion," said J. Joseph Curran Jr., Maryland's attorney general.

"I hope that we don't have it this time. But we would tip off our Maryland citizens: Just be very, very cautious of those suggesting that they are sending money or other items to New York or Washington."

Unsolicited e-mails

The national Council of Better Business Bureaus has received reports of unsolicited e-mails requesting donations for the victims, said spokeswoman Holly Cherico. She expects that people will be deluged with opportunities to give -- by telephone, at busy intersections, in the office and through the mail.

People should think before they hand over money, experts say. Curran said people should never give cash.

Local consumer affairs officials suggest that residents call the Maryland secretary of state's office to see whether the charities approaching them are registered with that office.

Registrations can be checked by calling 1-800-825-4510.

People want to help

Consumer advocates anticipate that this, more than any other time, is when people will want to give.

"Something of this magnitude has not happened in this country before, and as a result, people want to do something about it," said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance in Arlington, Va.

"They want to take out their wallet."

Charities are finding that's true.

"We've been fielding calls all day -- either donations or wanting to volunteer time," said Maj. Ron Raymer of the Salvation Army's Maryland and West Virginia divisional headquarters.

"We just received a call from the Moose Lodge; they've got over 40,000 individuals standing ready to assist in any way."

Jeanette Brown, spokeswoman for United Way of New York City, said corporations aren't the only ones donating to the September 11th Fund. She said 6,200 pledges had been made by yesterday morning to the fund's Web site,, for a total of $670,000.

"Our phones are literally ringing off the hook," she added.

Some who have started smaller efforts also are hoping for calls.

Smaller scale

Bill Pearce, a 38-year-old airline pilot from Monkton, said he established a fund Wednesday because he felt empty when he heard estimates of the death toll among firefighters and police officers trying to rescue people from the World Trade Center towers.

He was a volunteer firefighter in Butler during high school and college.

His fund is called "Maryland Cares." Sparks State Bank, which has five branches in northern Baltimore County, will take donations. The bank's main number is 410-771-4900.

"There's going to be a lot of families needing assistance over the years," Pearce said.

His fund is new and unproven, but he emphasizes that it's on the up and up. That's why he established it with a local bank, he said.

He encourages people to investigate the fund before donating.

"I invite any accounting firm to render services to keep tabs on this," he added.

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