Be generous but be aware of charity scammers

This is the time of year when many people focus on holiday and year-end giving. If you’re considering making a donation, take time to research the charity and make sure it’s legitimate, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recommends.

Charity scammers use deception to steal money from people who believe they are donating to legitimate causes, a department newsletter states. Scam artists often play on donors’ sympathy and take advantage of their generosity.

All charities soliciting within the state of Florida (excluding religious, educational, political, and governmental agencies) are required to register and file financial information with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Some organizations may spend as much as 95 percent on their purpose or cause, while others spend more on administrative costs. It is up to the donor to determine whether their contribution will be spent the way they intend.

According to the department, keep the following tips in mind before agreeing to donate:

  1. Ask for financial information, such as a copy of the organization’s IRS 990 income tax return, annual report, or a breakdown of how the money is spent.
  2. Ask how your contribution will be used. Ask questions, such as, “Who is the fundraiser and who will benefit from the donation?”; “How much of the contribution goes to the charity mentioned in the request?”; and “How much of the donation goes toward administrative and fundraising expenses?”
  3. Check if the charitable organization is registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services by visiting visiting floridaconsumerhelp.com; or contact the department’s toll-free hotline at 1.800.HELP.FLA (435.7352) or use the online Check-A-Charity tool to verify registration and financial information.
  4. Ask if the caller is a volunteer or a paid solicitor if you are solicited by telephone. Be aware that many telephone appeals for funds are made by paid solicitors, not volunteers. The solicitors often work for a for-profit firm hired by the charitable organization.
  5. Telemarketing is expensive and may entail substantial fundraising costs. Some organizations have 900 phone numbers. When you call the number, the cost of the call is automatically billed to your phone. Before dialing, make sure you wish to donate the price of the call to that cause.
  6. Ask the solicitor for their license number.
  7. Never give cash. Contribute by check and make it out to the organization. If you decide to donate online, look for indicators that the website is secure, such as a web address that begins with “https:” (the “s” stands for secure).
  8. Always obtain and save a printed copy of your donation or a receipt showing the amount of the contribution.
  9. Not all organizations soliciting in the name of benevolence are true charities eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. If this is important to you, ask about the organization’s federal and state eligibility for receiving tax-deductible donations. Typically, such donations fall under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).

Donors also may visit give.org, the website of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, to access reports on nationally soliciting charities. The alliance evaluates charities against comprehensive standards for charity accountability to help donors make informed giving decisions.

To file a complaint about a charity, use the FDACS on-line form or call 1.800.HELP.FLA (435.7352).

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