Like many people, I love giving to a good cause — doing volunteer work and sending donations lets me feel like I’m making a difference in the world. So I get upset when I hear about charity scams. These scammers prey on the good intentions of people and take money that could otherwise be used for important research and programs.
Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month—a cause that justifiably gets a lot of attention and is dear to my heart—it seems an ideal time to remember that not all donation requests are legitimate. How do you spot a phony when it comes to charities? Here are some tactics I’ve used to figure out when to give freely and when to raise the scam-alert flag, especially for breast cancer charities.
- Don’t trust the pink ribbon. At this point, the ubiquitous ribbon has been put on everything from the shoes of professional football players to yogurt containers. But keep in mind that use of this icon isn’t regulated by any government agency. Also, there are no rules about ribbon usage being tied to a certain percentage of profits going to charity.
- Read this list. A collaboration between the Tampa Bay Times and The Center for Investigative Reporting resulted in a list called America’s Worst Charities. Updated in December 2014, this list includes both scammers and legitimate nonprofits that use donations for “administrative costs” that have nothing to do with charity. For breast cancer, avoid these four: Cancer Fund of America, Breast Cancer Relief Foundation, Woman to Woman Breast Cancer Foundation and United Breast Cancer Foundation.
- Check them out on Give.org or Charity Navigator. These sites are designed to promote charitable giving and provide donors with a simple way to research organizations. You can browse charities by category and get ratings and reports on each. This can be especially helpful for “sound-alike” nonprofits. For example, American Breast Cancer Foundation gets only one star, while National Breast Cancer Foundation gets five.
- Beware of phone solicitations and email requests. Many email charity pitches are scams that may contain malware in attachments and links that can be used to hijack your computer. Charity scams also rely on telemarketing firms, with very little, if any, of the donations going to charity. This was the case for scammers like the Cancer Fund of America and Breast Cancer Society, which eventually prompted a federal investigation for fraud. Remember, too, that charity scammers can use caller ID spoofing to make you think they’re calling from a real nonprofit.
- Be proactive. If you’re passionate about a cause like breast cancer, be sure to research organizations and make an informed decision about where to contribute. This is a much better approach than responding to a plea for research funds that you might get over the phone or by mail. For breast cancer research and patient support, there are numerous organizations doing great work and using your donations to maximum effect, according to the watchdog group CharityWatch. These include the Breast Cancer Fund, Breast Cancer Research Foundation and National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund.
In general, it pays to put yourself on scam alert before you make any donations. When it comes to charity scams in particular, perpetrators are savvy at pulling your heartstrings—and picking your pocket.
Also, beyond seeing your donations go toward a scammer rather than an actual charity, you may be setting yourself up for identity theft. Some charity scams collect information like full names, bank account numbers and current addresses, which can all be used to open new accounts. Remember that your checks have all this information, so be wary about who receives them.
Have a question on a charity that you’re considering for a donation, but can’t find enough data on it? Send us a note and we’ll share our research with you!
Image courtesy of Flickr user Audrey.