Monday, November 24, 2008

Watch Out For Bogus Charities

Fund Raising Appeals - Hendry And Glades County Residents Asked For Donations

CLEWISTON, FL. -- While unprecedented solicitations for charitable donations occur in Hendry and Glades county this holiday season, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson is reminding consumers to check on the legitimacy of charities that seek donations and find out how registered charities spend their money.

Hendry and Glades county residents and visitors are bombarded this time of year with solicitations for donations for just about any cause imaginable, from helping families with medical issues to raising funds for community groups. Most of these fund raisers, while perhaps being sincere, are unregistered, with no way for the public to know just what happens to the money, and at worst, a bogus charity.

A sampling of fund raising pleas listed in local newspapers shows nearly all the organizations and individuals are not registered with the state, and are illegally raising funds without any accounting for their activities. A properly registered charity will have a registration number from the Florida Dept. of Consumer Services, in addition to a non-profit tax number.

"Unfortunately, as the number of charitable organizations grows, so does the number of con artists posing as legitimate charities to take people's money," Bronson said. "I'm afraid the bad economy will likely result in even more instances of bogus charities trying to take advantage of people's kindness."

Charities are launching their busiest time of the year, the holiday months of November and December.  Many collect about half their annual donations in the short time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, leaving donors at risk when giving to unregistered charitable organizations.

Charities that do business in Florida, with the exception of schools and churches are required to register with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services each year and provide financial information about income and expenses.  There are more than 13,000 charitable organizations currently registered with the state, a number that increases every year.

Consumers can find out if a charity is registered by calling the department's consumer helpline at 1-800-HELPFLA (1-800-435-7352) or 1-800-FLAYUDA for Spanish, or by logging on to They can also check the complaint history of an organization.

However, even if a charity is properly registered, consumers should find out more about how a charity operates.  The department does not endorse any charity, even those properly registered.  But it does provide a breakdown of how much charities spend on fundraising, administrative costs such as salaries and operating expenses and how much actually goes to the program services. 

"The department doesn't have any authority over how these organizations spend their money," Bronson said.  "But we can provide that information to consumers so they can make educated decisions about whether they think a charity is operating prudently.  If an organization spends a small percentage on services, consumers may want to think twice about donating."

The department also provides the names of professional solicitors and consultant who are working on behalf of a charitable organization. 

Bronson provided the following tips to consider when deciding whether to donate to an organization:

-- Don't judge an organization based on an impressive-sounding name.  Find out what it actually does.

-- Be wary of emotional appeals and organizations that have only vague plans for spending the funds they collect.

-- Never give cash.  Write a check payable only to an organization, not an individual.

-- Be wary of organizations that offer to send a ""unner" to pick up your donation. Reputable charities are willing to wait for your contribution.

-- You have the right to ask for an organization's financial report and its federal tax identification number, the latter of which you'll need to claim your contribution as a tax deduction.

-- Ask the organization to send you written information about its activities.
-- If an organization is not registered, contact the department.

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