Officials urge caution with holiday charities

COVINGTON -- 'Tis the season for giving, and unfortunately, some Grinches may try to take advantage of those with the holiday spirit.

Local law enforcement and the Better Business Bureau urge caution when encountering individuals or organizations soliciting donations, especially over the phone.

"I would just caution everybody if they are being solicited over the phone to request more information and try to verify the legitimacy of the organization asking for money," Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton said.

It's important to keep in mind that some scammers may want your I.D. just as much as your money, Cotton said.

"Do not give credit card information or account information over the phone," he said.

Perhaps the best advice is to simply stick with what you know, he added.

"If you're in the mood for giving, there are plenty of organizations around Covington that you can seek out and give contributions to instead of (giving to) somebody calling you on the phone," he said.

Cotton said there have been scammers in the past purporting to be from the local police department or the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. Those organizations do not solicit funds over the phone, and anyone who receives a call like that should report it to authorities, he said.

Sheriff Ezell Brown said con artists become more active during the holidays.

"They take full advantage of their victims due to them letting their guards down. The Newton County Sheriff's Office is aware of this. That is why we will focus our resources to help curtail these criminal acts from occurring," Brown said.

Brown said to beware of bogus charities and religious groups, people offering to share large sums of money they have found and phony lottery scams.

To report a suspected scam artist or bogus charity, call the Newton County Sheriff's Office at 678-625-1400 or the Covington Police at 770-786-7605.

The Better Business Bureau serving metro Atlanta, Athens and Northeast Georgia recommends asking these five questions when deciding whether to contribute to a charity:

* Is this a charity I can trust?

Some charities' names sound the same. Don't be fooled by names that look impressive or that closely resemble the name of a well-known organization. Check with your appropriate state government authorities, usually a division of the state's office of the attorney general, to verify the charity is registered to solicit in your state. Also, visit the Web site of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance at www.bbb.org/charity to find out whether a national charity meets the 20 BBB charity standards that address charity governance, finances, fund raising, donor privacy and other accountability issues.

* How will the charity use my donation?

Ask questions about how your donation will be used. Beware of appeals that bring tears to your eyes but tell you little about what the charity is doing about the problem. For example, if the charity claims it's helping the homeless, do they explain how, such as providing shelter, food or medical care and where this is taking place?

Watch out for statements such as "all proceeds will go to the charity." This can mean that only the money left after expenses, such as the cost of written materials and fund raising efforts, will go to the charity. These expenses can be high, so check carefully.

* Is my donation tax deductible?

If you want to take a charitable deduction for federal income tax purposes, make sure the organization is tax exempt as a charity under section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code. A charity appeal will usually include a reference to this. To verify a charity's tax status, access an IRS database of organizations by viewing Publication 78 on the IRS Web site at www.irs.gov.

* Can the charity actually use what I'm donating?

All charities welcome the receipt of monetary donations, but some also solicit in-kind donations such as clothing, food and toys. If you're planning to donate items to a worthy cause, make sure you know the in-kind contributions your charity prefers. For example, a food bank may prefer food items that are not perishable such as canned goods and a toy drive may be seeking new and not used toys.

* Am I feeling pressured to give?

Don't succumb to pressure to give money on the spot, either immediately over the phone via credit card or by allowing a "runner" to pick up a contribution. Take the time to research the charity fully. The charity that needs your money today will welcome it just as much tomorrow.