Beware: Charities may not be all they seem

COVINGTON - While giving is the theme of the holiday season and many want to spread the joy to those less fortunate, the Better Business Bureau is advising those who are generous of heart to investigate before opening their pocketbooks.

During the holidays, appeals from charities increase, but so do scams, said Fred Elsberry Jr., spokesman for the Better Business Bureau.

Scammers often target the elderly and poor, he said.

Telephone scams are one of the most common forms of charity fraud, Elsberry said. Typically, someone purporting to represent a charity will call and ask for a donation and request a credit card or bank account number.

'The first thing we tell people is don't feel pressured. Ask for information. Tell them if they're not willing to send it to you, you're not going to give," he said.

Also, a common misperception is that purchases from charitable organizations are 100 percent tax deductible, Elsberry said.

"People are under the misimpression they can write off the entire amount they paid for those items. They don't realize they have to subtract the fair market value," he said.

Here are some additional tips from the Better Business Bureau on holiday giving:

' Do not fall prey to high-pressure tactics. Any legitimate charity will allow you time to do research before donating.

' Seek additional facts. Request that the soliciting organization send a copy of their most current certified audit and annual report. Even a newly established charity should be able to provide a program brochure and budget plan for collected funds.

' Ask how much of the charity's income is spent on actual program services as opposed to fundraising and administrative costs. Determine if the charity has or is employing a professional fundraising firm to solicit your donation. If so, ask what percentage of monies received the firm retains for their services.

' Do not purchase an item on behalf of a charity, such as a box of candy or tickets to a holiday show, and assume that the full price will benefit the charity. Ask questions to determine how much of your donation will actually benefit the charity's program services.

' Do not fall prey to fraudulent phone appeals that include chances to enter a sweepstakes, especially if the solicitor asks for a donation to claim a prize. Requiring a contribution would make the sweepstakes an illegal lottery.

' Do not give your credit card or bank account numbers over the phone or send cash through the mail or via courier. Make all checks out to the name of the charity and not to an individual.

' Do not be fooled by names that may sound impressive or closely resemble the name of a well-known organization. Do not give to an organization simply because "children" or any other sympathy pull is included in the name.

' Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if a report is available on a local or national charity by calling 404-766-0875 or visiting www.bbb.org. To check on national charities, consumers may also go to www.give.org.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.