Community Voices

Crime Watch: Thieves and scam artists take advantage of peoples’ holiday cheer

Carmen Gonzalez Caldwell
Carmen Gonzalez Caldwell

The holidays are around the corner and we need to prepare ourselves for the evil crooks who are out there. This time of the year, different organizations start to tap our doors and mailboxes, many that are truly fantastic. But we need to be extra careful to make sure we are dealing with real charitable organizations and not phony solicitations.

Let’s look at some of the techniques that are at best questionable — and in some cases, illegal:

▪ Prize offers: Potential donors are told that they have won a contest and are eligible for a prize — usually worthless — if they make a donation to a charity.

▪ Chain letters: Unsolicited appeals, usually in the form of e-mails, ask potential donors not only to contribute to an organization but also to forward the e-mail to friends and family members.

▪ Like-sounding names: Fraudulent charities take names that are very similar to those of high-profile charities that are known and trusted by the public.

Another scam very prevalent in our community during this time of year: People will come to your door selling magazines or gift items in the name of a school or charity, then ask to come into your house.

Don’t let anyone in who is selling anything. Sometimes these people will come with small children, so that you assume it’s safe to let them in. Well unfortunately, some of these little kids, who look cute as a button, will ask to use the restroom while they are in your home. Then they go into the bedroom to take whatever they can put in their pockets. You don’t even notice until they have left your home.

So please, again, don’t let anyone into your home. If they refuse to leave, call the police and give the best description you can.

Here are ways you can prevent being a victim of charity fraud:

▪ Ask how your money will be used, such as what percentage will go to the actual programs versus the administrative and fundraising cost.

▪ Request written information that gives the full name, address and phone numbers of the organization, as well as a description of the programs it supports.

▪ Check out any charity you don’t know with the local charity registration office, Better Business Bureau or a charity watchdog group such as www.charitywatch.org, www.give.org or www.guidestar.org.

▪ Don’t be fooled by a name that closely resembles the name of a respected and well-known charity. Ask for the charity’s tax-exempt letter indicating its IRS status. You can’t claim a tax-deductible donation if the charity does not have one.

▪ Never give cash. Make your contribution by check payable to the full name of the charity once you are certain it’s a charitable organization.

▪ Don’t give out your Social Security number. A charity does not need it in order for you to claim a tax deduction.

Charity-related fraud should be reported to local law enforcement or the local postmaster. Complaints can also be filed online with the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org/.

We all want to be helpful, but we need to make sure that we are helping those that truly are helping.

Carmen Caldwell is executive director of Citizens’ Crime Watch of Miami-Dade. Send feedback and news for this column to carmen@citizenscrimewatch.org, or call her at 305-470-1670.

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