Throughout the year, and especially during the holiday season, you probably get appeals in the mail or by telephone urging you to contribute financially to a good cause. But the U.S. Postal Inspection Service warns those who want to give that there are plenty of fraud operators out there who are scheming for your money--and the last thing on their mind is charity. Not only do such come-ons bilk you of your money, but they also put money you intended for the needy into the hands of con artists.
But just how do you know who is legit and who isn't? The Salvation Army and the American Cancer Society--those are among the obviously worthy organizations. But what if you receive a charitable solicitation from an organization you've never heard of? To guard against being taken advantage of, the Postal Inspection Service offers the following guidelines when donating to charities:
Check out organizations you're unfamiliar with, or whose names are similar to well-known charities. You can do this by visiting the Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance Web site, or by contacting them at this address:
BBB Wise Giving Alliance
4200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 800
Arlington, VA 22203
- If you're unfamiliar with the charity, ask for its annual report and financial statement. If the organization is not willing to provide these financial documents, you should immediately be suspicious.
- Make checks payable to an organization only--never an individual.
- Be suspicious of solicitors who say they will accept your donation in cash only. (Con artists want cash so there will be no paper trail for authorities to follow.)
- Report any suspicious organizations to your local postmaster or Postal Inspector.
The Postal Inspection Service encourages giving others a helping hand, but cautions those who give to make sure that the organization they're giving to is a legitimate charity, and not one that was set up for the sole purpose of bilking the public.
Scam artists who use the U.S. Mail to misrepresent charities may be prosecuted under the mail fraud statute, Title 18, USC 1341. The penalty is a fine or up to five years imprisonment, or both -- unless a financial institution is affected, in which case the fine may be raised to $1 million and imprisonment may ordered for up to 30 years, or both.