Secretary of State warns of charity scams

COVINGTON -- Secretary of State Brian Kemp is warning citizens when donating to various charities during the holidays to make sure the organization is legitimate and to take precautions to protect themselves from scams.

"At this time of the year, let's make the most of our contributions to individuals and families in need," he said in a printed press release. "Many wish to give back to those less fortunate through charitable organizations, and I ask that donors familiarize themselves with an organization before giving to ensure legitimacy so their gift may be property used."

Kemp gave the following list of tips for end-of-the-year giving:

-- Research charities before you contribute. Know the percentage of your contribution that a charity spends on fundraising activities, employee salaries or expenses that do not directly support the charity's stated mission.

Kemp recommends a number of online resources that can help with the research including The Better Business Bureau (give.org) and GuideStar (guidestar.org), which provide detailed information about nonprofit organizations. Also, check out the charitable organization's website.

-- Be wary of telephone solicitors asking for contributions. If you are solicited by phone, ask that the individual put their request in writing and provide complete information about the charitable program. Also, find out if the person making the solicitation is a volunteer or a paid solicitor.

-- Never give your credit car, debit card or bank account information to a telephone solicitor. Be particularly cautious of couriers willing to rush out to your home or business to pick up your contribution.

-- If a tax deduction is important to you, make sure the organization has a tax deductible status with the Internal Revenue Service. "Tax exempt," "non-profit" and "tax deductible" mean different things. Just because a solicitor says their organization is non-profit or tax-exempt, that doesn't mean you can legally deduct your contribution on your income tax. Only "tax deductible" means your contribution can be deducted. The IRS website (irs.gov/charities) has a searchable database of organizations eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions.

"Many charitable solicitors ask for contributions of clothing, household items and vehicles. IRS rules concerning valuations and receipts have changed significantly in recent years; be sure you understand them completely. For more information go to ins.gov/charities/contributors.

-- Not all organizations with charitable sounding names are actually charities. Many organizations adopt names confusingly similar to well-known charities. Be sure you know exactly who is asking for your contribution.

-- Watch our for organizations that use questionable techniques such as sending unordered merchandise or invoices after you have turned them down for a donation. You are under no obligation to pay for or return items received under these circumstances.

-- Most police and fire departments are funded by tax dollars. However, their unions and social organizations may solicit funds. These groups typically use paid fund-raisers. If you are solicited by an organization using the words "police" or "firefighter," call your local police or fire department to verify that the group is actually supporting the department and find out how much of their contributions actually are used for these programs.

-- Be skeptical of organizations which list only post offices boxes, "PMB" addresses or mail drop suite numbers.

For more information, call the Georgia Secretary of State's Professional Licensing Board Division at 478-207-2440 or go to http://www.sos.ga.gov/pib.