Officials warn of charity scams
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - State and federal officials are warning consumers to be wary of fraudulent charities seeking to exploit Superstorm Sandy and the holiday giving season.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin both issued warnings this week urging residents be on the lookout for fake charities.
Both said con artists might try to take advantage of a public desire to give following the disaster and ahead of the holiday season.
"There are citizens still trying to put their lives back in order as a result of last month's devastating storm," Goodwin said in a statement. "West Virginians are still eager to help out. I ask people to continue to use caution: there are criminals who will take advantage of that generosity."
He said the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have warned the public to scrutinize all charitable solicitations seeking donations on behalf of Sandy victims.
These solicitations can come in a variety of forms, including emails, websites, door-to-door collections, mailings, telephone calls and similar methods.
Sometimes the solicitors will use heavy-handed or coercive tactics as a way to pressure people into giving.
"My concern is that people who are running fraudulent organizations will call West Virginians and try to get them to donate money by making them feel like they have to donate money," Tennant said in a statement.
Goodwin said the best way to be safe is to stick with well-known charitable organizations.
"It's a good idea to stick with charities you know and trust," he said. "If a stranger calls and asks you for money, do your homework before donating. And if you suspect someone is up to no good, call the authorities."
Tennant said people should do their best to get as much information on an organization as possible.
"The best thing you can do if you're contacted by a charity you think isn't legitimate is to ask as many questions as you can," Tennant said. "Ask where the charity is located, where the money will be going, and if they could send you literature.
"The legitimate charities will welcome all of those questions because they have nothing to hide," she said.
The Secretary of State's office maintains an online database of registered West Virginia charitable organizations. The list of 3,248 registered organizations can be accessed on the Secretary of State's website, www.wvsos.com, by clicking on the "Wise Charitable Giving" link at the top of the page.
The database offers details on the charity's total contributions, how much came from West Virginians, how the charity distributed the funds and how much of those funds were used in the state.
Not all valid charities are listed, however. Only those that receive more than $25,000 in donations during a year and do not use professional fundraising consultants or counsel are required to register.
Other exceptions include the American Red Cross, which is monitored on the federal level, and the Salvation Army, because it is a religious organization exempt from registration requirements.
Tennant said if a charity is not listed online and you suspect it may be fraudulent, you can report it by calling her office at 1-866-767-8683.
Goodwin said suspicious charitable solicitations made in connection with Sandy relief efforts should be reported to the National Center for Disaster Fraud.
The center maintains a 24-hour hotline to report scams at 866-720-5721. Reports can also be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Residents can also report suspicious e-mail and online solicitations to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-5148.