Donor beware when giving money to aid disaster relief

PERSONAL FINANCE

September 04, 2005|By Eileen Ambrose

ONE OF THE sad realities of natural disasters is that there are always those who try to take advantage of people who want to make donations to help the victims.

Hurricane Katrina may not be any different.

Regulators and consumer advocates already are warning people who want to help those uprooted by the hurricane to be on the lookout for schemers and to give wisely.

"Most Americans are very generous and want to do something. And so they are predisposed to say `yes' when someone calls," said Bob Ottenhoff, president and chief executive of GuideStar, which provides information about nonprofits. "People sometimes will take advantage of that disposition."

Giving wisely isn't just about avoiding con artists. It's also making sure that what you donate is something the charity can use to help victims.

To assure that hurricane victims get the help they need, here are some dos and don'ts for donating during disasters:

Do give financial assistance. While it's tempting for individuals to donate food, clothing, furniture and other goods when they see pictures of homes wiped out, charities - such as the American Red Cross - say they don't have the resources for cleaning, storing, shipping and distributing items.

(Disaster relief charities, though, do welcome supplies from large corporations that can provide huge quantities of say, cans of water, and are able to transport them to disaster areas.)

Similarly, some groups may want to organize a local drive to collect clothes for victims and transport the items to disaster sites. But that might cause more problems and "delay the arrival of more urgently needed supplies," said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance.

Don't give cash donations. Instead make your gift by credit card or a check payable to the organization, advised Jamie St. Onge, a spokeswoman with Maryland's attorney general's office.

If you don't have dollars to spare, donate your time, Ottenhoff said. That doesn't mean jumping in your car and heading down to New Orleans, but volunteering at a local charity that may be involved in a national effort, he said.

Victims of Katrina will need a wide range of help, from immediate necessities such as food and water to longer-term needs like rebuilding schools and other infrastructure. Consider what sort of projects you want to support and search out a charity involved in that kind of work, Ottenhoff said.

GuideStar lists more than 1.5 million nonprofits along with information about their programs and finances on its Web site at www.guidestar.org. The Wise Giving Alliance evaluates relief organizations and provides other information on charities at www.give.org.

If you're still not sure, stick with well-known charities whose work you are familiar with or you have given to in the past.

The disaster is likely to lead to startup groups wanting to help. Be wary of startups, Weiner said. They may be well-intentioned, but too inexperienced and ill-equipped to deal with such a major disaster, he said.

If you receive a phone solicitation, make sure you know with whom you are dealing.

Already, residents of Denver have reported getting calls from someone claiming to be collecting money for the American Red Cross, although the charity has not authorized the solicitation, Weiner said.

"Ask questions. `Why should I give to you? What do you do?' `What are you going to do with the money?'" Ottenhoff said. You want to see that the charity has a plan and the ability to follow through on it, he said.

Don't succumb to high-pressure phone solicitations. Legitimate charities won't do that.

If a caller is persistent, hang up or ask for written information to be mailed to you. Con artists won't bother sending information and just move on, Weiner said.

Also, if you pledged to donate but have second thoughts, you don't have to give the money, said Derek Fink, a spokesman with Maryland's Office of the Secretary of State. "A pledge is not a contract," he said.

Most charities soliciting more than $25,000 a year from Marylanders or those that have paid a solicitor to raise money here must register with the state, Fink said. To check a registration, call 800-825-4510 or go online at www.marylandsos.gov.

Be wary of e-mail solicitations. Some messages will link to Web sites that look like they belong to legitimate charities, but instead are operated by con artists.

Also, make sure you give to the right charity. Many charities have similar sounding names, and some fake charities purposefully imitate the names of legitimate organizations.

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

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