In times of national crises, schemes that tug at the heartstrings abound


April 20, 2003|By EILEEN AMBROSE

TIMES OF TROUBLE can bring out the best in people, and the worst.

Right now, consumer advocates are warning to be on guard against the latter.

Whenever there's a war, natural catastrophe or other tragedy that pulls at the heartstrings, there will be appeals to Americans to open their purse strings. Some will be scams. It happened after the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and after the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, experts said.

Anticipating problems, some states have issued alerts.

Indiana's attorney general warned against money-transfer schemes, where consumers may be tricked into wiring money or permitting their bank accounts to be used by con artists posing as Iraqis trying to flee their country. Kentucky's attorney general said con artists may pose as law enforcement officers soliciting money for homeland security or to help the families of soldiers who have died.

The Better Business Bureau also recently reported questionable war-related pitches.

Telemarketers, for example, requested money from North Carolina residents for troops and their families, but refused to reveal information about their organization, the BBB said. A Web site selling patriotic T-shirts promised to send part of the profits to the American Red Cross, but the charity hasn't heard of the online vendor.

Some are just outright frauds, such as the telemarketers claiming to be from the government and telling Tennessee residents that they must buy a survival kit, the bureau said.

Bennett M. Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance in Arlington, Va., said it's not just scams that consumers must watch out for. More likely, consumers will be approached by start-up charities that may have good intentions, but lack the management to fulfill their goals, he said.

"A lot of these things are going to be new. Anyone can start up a new charity," Weiner said.

For example, about 470 organizations solicited donations for Sept. 11-related causes, with roughly one-third of the groups new. "The sheer volume added to donor confusion and made it even more difficult for donors to make informed choices," Weiner said.

If you're being solicited, look out for these red flags:

Vague appeals. "Watch out for appeals that bring tears to your eyes, but don't really specify what the group is doing," Weiner said. "It's more likely that an honest appeal is going to be more specific about the nature of the program activities. They want people to know what they are raising money for."

High-pressure tactics. Legitimate groups won't pressure you to make a contribution, such as demanding credit card or personal information. Reputable groups will give you time to make an informed decision, and should be willing to send additional information to help make your choice, experts said.

Sketchy information. Charitable groups, even new ones, should be able to tell you how much money they hope to raise and how much will go toward the program's services. They should also be able to tell donors what will happen to any excess funds they collect, Weiner said.

Even promotions where merchandise is sold to raise money for charities should indicate what portion of the purchase price will go to the cause, and the charity's Web site should contain an acknowledgment of the promotion, Weiner said.

Avoiding organizations exhibiting these warning signs can screen out disreputable groups, but donors are encouraged to do more research before giving. There's plenty of information on the Internet.

The American Institute of Philanthropy Web site,, gives good marks to 19 charities that will be involved in humanitarian efforts in Iraq or neighboring countries. The group grades charities partly on how much of their budget goes to programs.

The Defense Department's doesn't endorse any group, but lists organizations collecting money on behalf of the armed forces overseas.

The Better Business Bureau's Web site,, posts information on more than 500 charities, and notes whether the groups meet the bureau's 20 standards. For example, the bureau recommends that at least 65 percent of the charity's total expenses be spent on program services.

GuideStar provides information on the missions of 70,000 charities, as well as the financial reports on about 250,000 charities at

If there is anything in the charity's financial report that alarms you, call the group and ask about it, said Suzanne Coff- man, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit GuideStar. "If you don't want to call them, look for another organization that does the same type of work that doesn't make you feel uneasy."

Marylanders can call 1-800-825-4510 for information on charities registered to solicit residents, or review filings at

To suggest a topic, contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen.ambrose

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