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How To Not Become a Victim of Charity Scams: Listen To The Podcast

   Mar 12, 2022

[00:18:11] Bob: Laurie Styron is Director of CharityWatch, an organization that rates charities based on what percentage of donations is actually spent on the cause vs.on organizational overhead. I talked with her because she has a lot of great advice on how to be generous without getting taken advantage of. Laurie sees the same problems Kay sees all the time.

Laurie Styron: Yeah, you know, it's unfortunately just an all too typical story. I've kind of read a different version of that story probably a thousand times over the past nearly 20 years.

Bob: Almost 20 years chasing down people who are taking advantage of those with generous hearts. I suggest to Laurie that that sounds like depressing work.

Laurie Styron: I mean sometimes it can feel like drowning in quicksand for sure, but you know, at the end of the day here's the thing is that there are a lot of really great charities out there doing really, really important work, and you know, there's a lot of people working in the nonprofit sector that, you know, they're not making money hand over fist doing it. They're passing up other, you know, more lucrative jobs to do meaningful work. You know, there are some exceptions to that, but for the most part there are a lot of really great charities out there. And the way to maintain a level playing field for, for nonprofits is to make sure that you know when we see some of these predatory people who kind of know how to stay just on the right side of the law to be able to continue to kind of exploit people's generosity and play on their emotions. Um, you know, we need to be able to expose people like that so that the rest of the nonprofit sector can continue to operate efficiently, eff--, and effectively and not be competing for donations with some of these, you know, these really predatory people who are siphoning money away from, you know, all these important causes.

Bob: Okay, so speaking of drowning in quicksand, I know uh because my mother is one of those generous hearts, and when you, with a lot of charities, uh when you give them even a little bit of money um, you hear from them really often afterwards, and then you hear from some of their affiliates. So you already hinted that there's a set of folks who aren't doing anything necessarily illegal, but it, it does feel overwhelming. So how do people sort out this problem?

Laurie Styron: Well, first, sorting it out is difficult, but I, I want to maybe explain to people why and how this happens because that might help them to sort of make decisions in a different way. There's a couple things that happen here. First, a lot of people make the assumption when they get a direct mail letter with sad photos and sad stories and things, um, often those are written in a very personal way. They're written in a way that is intended to connect with people on an emotional level to try to inspire you to donate, right. And um, telemarketing calls, they can be the same way. They have a script. Um, they kind of have a response for every possible thing you could say of, oh, I don't have a lot of money to give, and then their script says, oh tell the person just to give a little, right. You know, they're, they're, they have an answer for everything. But one of the reasons that these solicitations snowball after you give even a small donation, there's two primary reasons. The first is that you know, people assume that the charity itself is calling you directly, that some good-hearted person who works a billion hours a week and puts their heart and soul into the nonprofit, that that's the person who's picking up the phone and calling you, "Hey, I have a nonprofit, I'm," you know, "I'm working like crazy to do some good in the world. Can you help me out?" right. That's what a lot of people think. They don't realize that a lot of the people contacting them are actually for-profit professional fundraising companies hired by the charities to solicit you. And you know, there's nothing objectively wrong with a charity outsourcing that kind of function, right, but there are efficient and inefficient ways to outsource that function and the for-profits, they don't really have any incentive to not harass you because they are typically getting some kind of a percentage of your donation, and so they will call and call and call and call because it's a number's game for them. The more people they call, the more times they call you, the more money they're going to get.

Bob: Some charities also try to deceive you by changing their name and by passing around your name.

Laurie Styron: Because these are professional fundraisers, they have a lot of different clients. So depending on the contract the charity has with this fundraiser, once you donate to one of their charity clients, that professional fundraiser might then put your name on a list so that they start to contact you for all of their other clients. So you donate 50 bucks to a cancer research charity, right? And then suddenly over the next month, you are getting donation requests from a veteran's organization, from an animal organization, from an environmental organization, police and firefighters, and you're like, how did this happen, right. Well how it happened is that your name is now on a list as someone who is an active donor. The second reason it happens is that there are some charities that they will solicit you under a lot of different names. So, you donate 50 bucks to a charity that say helps rescue horses, right. And then maybe that charity has a lot of other different programmings that it's soliciting you under. So you start getting letters from other horse charities, or you know, that kind of related program, and you think, oh, this is a different charity. Well it might not be. It might be the same charity soliciting you under a different name so that instead of getting 50 bucks from you, maybe they'll end up getting 200 before the end of the day.

Bob: Of all the things I heard from Kay, the thing that upset me most was this idea that a charity might call you up and flat out lie to you, tell you that you've pledged a donation when you haven't. So I asked Laurie about that.

Bob: How often does that kind of thing come up?

Laurie Styron: Frequently, frequently, because you know unscrupulous fundraisers, they will do what works, right. They will do what works. So, you know, they kind of know that they tested this out and it worked.

Bob: Plenty of people in all phases of life don't remember every piece of paper they filled out or every promise they've made. That can be even harder, and as people get older.

Laurie Styron: There's a, typically a pretty long stretch of time before it gets to that extreme point where you have a family member, a parent or a relative, or even a friend who they're functioning basically well, right. Like they're, they're able to cook and clean and, you know, take care of themselves and spend time with their families, and they're doing all right. But they do have, they're starting to have some memory issues. And so when they get this kind of letter or telemarketing call, 'cause it happens, you know, through both mediums, um, they really do think like shoot, you know, I probably did pledge, and I just don't remember. It's really so awful, right, I've seen some pretty awful things you can imagine in my, in my career here at CharityWatch, but this is one of the worst ones is playing, you know, playing on the health conditions of older people like that.

Bob: Laurie has some pretty straightforward advice for situations like this.

Laurie Styron: So I think that that might be the better takeaway from this, is it's not so much trying to ask people to figure out, well, did I? Or didn't I? I think what it is is that even if you did maybe pledge something at one point and now you're feeling guilty 'cause they're telling you, hey, you know, we're expecting this, we need your money, if you didn't research that charity the last time, whether you promised money to them or not, just say, you know, I, I don't remember that. I'm not really sure, but I will say that, you know, I realized I hadn't taken the time to research your charity, and I don't feel comfortable donating until I do.

Bob: Yeah, I like that. It doesn't matter whether you did or you didn't. You're allowed to change your mind.

Laurie Styron: Exactly. It kind, it kind of gets around that whole question altogether, yeah.

Bob: Adults with elderly parents can help a lot just by keeping an eye on their parents' money and their mail. But it's not easy.

Laurie Styron: Well just, you know, how difficult it is for a sandwich generation right, who are, you know, they're still taking care of kids and, and also trying to take care of their parents and just kind of doing double duty like that. It's, it's a lot of pressure on that generation of people. And the problem too is that there are just really no easy answers because the laws are just really inadequate to kind of stop these things from happening. And so, unfortunately, we all do need to be very proactive in kind of helping our relatives, especially people who are getting older and, and need that kind of help.

Bob: Laurie is full of ways that consumers can protect themselves and their loved ones against unscrupulous charities.

Laurie Styron: Charities are regulated at the federal level as most people know, but they're also regulated at the state level, and those state level regulations are actually the ones that regulate most of the solicitation activities. Charities are required to be registered in 40 states, plus the District of Columbia, as a condition of being allowed to solicit you within that state's borders. So even if there's a charity that's based in Ohio, and you live in California, if they're soliciting you, that charity needs to be registered in California to be able to solicit you. So people do have some tools available. If you are getting inundated or even harassed, right, by all of these solicitations, there's two things I would suggest. First, and we try to help with this a little bit, we do have a fundraising reduction notice posted on our website that people can print out that just kind of asserts, hey, stop soliciting me. And you can print that out and mail it directly to the charity so hopefully they will respect your wishes.

Bob: You can write your own letter too. Don't send that letter to the fundraising company, send it directly to the charity.

Laurie Styron: So if you send some kind of correspondence to any of those PO Box addresses, there's a really, really good chance no one's going to read it, and it's just going to get thrown out. So that's a really, really important thing to understand is that you need to take the time to actually find the charity's official address. Even better, if you can find the name of the president or someone high up at the charity, uh the marketing director, someone like that, put the letter to their attention, that way you know that the charity itself is getting this letter.

Bob: More important, Laurie says, be an active giver, not a passive one. Pick your charities carefully and don't be swayed by solicitations in the mail or on the phone.

Laurie Styron: The overarching thing is, is to kind of change your attitude about giving, right. This is my elevator pitch to people when they don't have a lot of time or they just want to kind of get a seed planted, right, is that I tell people approach your giving in a proactive way, not in a reactive way. So, the number one reason Americans donate to charity is because they are asked. So if you're kind of reacting to all these solicitations you receive, right, you're not in the driver's seat. You're, you're just kind of allowing these fundraisers to kind of play on your emotions and in some cases guilt you into making a donation. I think a much better way to approach it is if you're a generous person, if you feel kind of a duty to your fellow man, or to, you know, to these different causes where you do want to feel like you're making a positive difference in the world, and you feel like that's part of what's important to do, think proactively about what causes are important to me, right. Thing proactively. You can't solve all the world's problems by yourself, right. If you don't have a million dollars to donate, then just think, okay, what causes are really important to me, proactively find efficient and effective charities working in those causes, those three or four causes, and then write those charities a check, send it in. With your check say, "I'm, I'm donating this on the condition that you will not solicit me," is one thing you can do. Or not solicit me more than once a year. And then just stop. Don't reactively respond to these fundraising letters. If you can't afford it, and if you also want to avoid, you know, ending up on a lot of these lists.

Bob: And if you want to avoid that big pile of mail, just say no.

Laurie Styron: This scares the charities a little bit when I say this, because, and I understand why, there's a lot of competition for funds out there, and they, you know, they want you to open that letter. You know it's bad when there are great charities out there who do only solicit you once or twice a year, they're trying to be responsible and efficient, and they do want you to read their letters to understand what programs they're conducting and that kind of thing. But you know, from the individual's perspective, it just really is risky because of all the reasons that we've talked about today. So, you know, again, if people want to come to charitywatch.org, we have a list of our top-rated charities that we have vetted for financial efficiency and other, you know, governance and transparency metrics. And especially for some of the, you know, the older folks who maybe aren't so internet savvy, we do have our Charity Rating Guide and Watchdog Report. If you do want to kind of go through these fundraising letters that you receive, you know, our rating guide or our website is a really good resource for you to see if what they claim to be doing is what they're really doing, if they're telling you in their fundraising letter that they're spending, you know, 100% of your donation on their programs, you know, sometimes you might look on our rating guide, and it turns out that it's only 12%.

Bob: CharityWatch has even set aside free pamphlets for you, Perfect Scam listeners.

Laurie Styron: We set aside today 50 copies of our recent rating guide, Charity Rating Guide and Watchdog Report, so if, you know, folks, listeners to your program want to write into us at CharityWatch, it's PO Box 578460, Chicago, Illinois, 60657. Um, we set aside 50 copies and we'll go ahead and, and send those out to people and hopefully um, we can get those out in time for the holiday giving season.

Bob: So the first 50 Perfect Scam listeners who write to CharityWatch will get a free brochure, but even better still, you can send CharityWatch your mail. Really.

Laurie Styron: Last month I had two people mail me some stuff, and one of the charities we ended up giving an F to, it was terrible, um, it only spent a very small percentage of the donation on programs, it was like a charity that claimed to be helping hor--, injured horses. And then there was a, a veteran's charity that um, ended up being highly efficient. I'm pretty sure that one got an A+. So it's really a mixed bag. The takeaway is that you really cannot rely on the, this language or the images in the fundraising letters. Like that should not be what makes your decision for you.

Bob: Do you want our listeners to send you brochures they get?

Laurie Styron: Sure, we're always happy to receive copies of solicitations, because it really does help to, you know, inform some of our work. We often will compare the fundraising letters and, you know, to the audits and the tax filings and the fundraising contracts that we review. Um, and then sometimes we do write articles about, about these issues, like hey, you know, so and so sent us a letter in, and this is what the charity said it was doing, and lo and behold, they only spent 10% on that. So, you know, donors beware.

Bob: I think this is great. I'm going to give people homework. I love this. This is fantastic.

Bob: There's a reason givers have to do all this work to make sure their money is spent wisely. When there's a real illegal fundraising scam that happens, it takes a long time for the wheels of justice to do their thing. And even if the criminals are caught, the victims rarely, if ever, get their money back.

Laurie Styron: The one downside to the legal actions, right, is that they're always after the fact. They're always after, sometimes years after because it, you know, these, these investigations, they have to be done in a very structured way or legal way. There's a lot of rules they have to follow. You know, eventually the Attorney General's Offices do shut some of these people down, but it's after the fact as I said, and so this is why it's so important for people to be proactive. Don't rely on the legal system to try to get your donation back 10 years later is what I'm saying.

Bob: Of course, many of these aggressive tactics are legal, they're just unsavory. So I asked Laurie to tell me where the line is.

Laurie Styron: I'm not an attorney, so I, I can't, you know, give really specific legal advice here, but I can tell you based on my two decades of experience how to kind of think about this topic, right. Charities are allowed to send you a letter. I think an example is the best way to illustrate this, right. So you'll, you get a letter in the mail, and it has, you know, it's a 4-page letter, and it has 10 pictures of injured veterans, you know, amputees, people who are in wheelchairs, you know, images that are really designed to, to elicit an, an emotional reaction from you and in some cases, to ki--, kind of play on your patriotism, right, you know, hey, these people sacrificed for us, you know, can't you do something to give back to, and there will be stories throughout this letter, right, like, you know, this person's name is Dave, right. They make it very personal. They, they give you personal stories about Dave and his family and all he went through, and when he came back, and the minimum resources that are available for him. And it really, really makes you want to donate, right? So charities, they really do include pretty general language if you really sift through, pick out the emotional stuff and really get down to the brass tacks of what they're saying. That's the thing, like you know, I, you know, only an attorney could look at any specific letter and tell you if it crosses the line legally. But I think more important than understanding what's legal or illegal is just kind of understanding in a general way that most of it is legal, right. Most of it is legal because they're not specifically promising you something very specific. They're using words like help, or for, you know, our programs, that kind of thing, and they're allowed to define that.

Bob: God, you're depressing me. But that's, that's very well put, that the, the thing to understand is most of it is legal. It's wild.

Laurie Styron: Right, and, and there's just, there's just a huge, a huge chasm at times between what a charity is saying about itself, and what the finances reveal that they're really doing. So you know if, if anything I would say be, be even more suspicious of very emotionally charged fundraising letters.

Bob: And Laurie has some pretty specific types of solicitations for you to worry about.

Laurie Styron: The predatory fundraisers, they tend to target with the most popular causes and the ones that, that are emotionally charged. So be particularly careful when you receive fundraising letters about sick or injured animals, children with cancer, disabled veterans, these kinds of things, right? There, there are other causes people can feel passionate about like the environment or climate change, right, but like these really personal, you know, sick, sick dogs, or, you know injured veterans. These are the causes that some of these um, predatory fundraisers, they really love to target because they're really popular causes and they are also really easy to kind of draft emotionally charged appeals for. Those are the categories to, to watch out for in particular. Also, police and firefighter groups is another one. There are a lot of nonprofits that will also try to sort of play on your patriotism, so if you're someone who's like hey, I'm proud to be an American, and I support the troops and this kind of thing, I support my local police and firefighters, you know, there, there are fundraisers that know that, that there are people who feel that way and that they feel patriotic when they donate, and they will use that against you to take your donation and basically pocket most of what you give.

Bob: And as her final rule of thumb, she says folks should think about pizza, cars, and charities the same way. Pizza, cars, and charities? Yep. Be careful how you spend your money, however you are spending it.

Bob: And, and let's face it, when you do that, you're more engaged in what you're doing with your money, right? It actually feels better to know more intimately what good is happening with your money and if you're more confident that it's going to the right place right?

Laurie Styron: And that's just general good advice for all of the ways that we think about our, our financial resources, right. I mean it's just a good rule of thumb with everything is that you don't want to be reacting to sales pitches and marketing material, and pre--, high pressure tactics or people playing on your guilt. I mean that's just no; I mean it's not a way to buy a car. It's not a way to order a pizza. That's not a way to donate to charity.


Bob: After all that time working with her parents, Kay says she learned that it's really important to work with your family members when talking them through these issues rather than work for them, or even worse, against them. And find a way to make sure they can still feel the true joy of being generous.

Kay Bransford: A lot of people don’t want to just turn over their checkbook to their adult children. It's, that checkbook is really meaning and purpose. So give it time and space to build that, that habit where you can change it. And give them an opportunity to give. If they really want to give that money, find places that they're used to giving. Can they, you know, do they tithe? I think that's the hard part is when people do automated giving, they don't get the satisfaction of writing that check. So there's ways to still give them the ability to sit down and write that check.

Bob: Boy is that an interesting thing to say. You are absolutely right. No, automated giving, it just doesn't give you that hit of whatever it is, dopamine or something that, that makes you feel good.

Kay Bransford: Uh-huh.

Bob: Laurie has one final thought for Perfect Scam listeners. While it's tempting to spread your charitable giving around, and send just a few dollars to almost anyone who asks, well that's really not a good idea.

Laurie Styron: Especially when you're talking about the huge volume of solicitations that people receive. I have talked to so many donors and it tends to be older donors that say this to me, where they say, you know, I, I have 50 solicitations, but I'm on a limited income, I really don't have a lot of money. So I'm just going to send $5 to each charity that asks me. And you know, the, the problem with that is that charities have overhead, even really, really good efficient charities have overhead, and so if you're sending really tiny donations to like 50 different charities, or even 10 different charities, most of your donation is going to be used to cover processing fees, and you know, customer service people, or lockbox fees, or these kinds of things related to processing your donation. You're much better off picking out two, three, or four charities and making somewhat larger donations to them, than you are by just sending it in tiny little donations to lots of different organizations.

Bob: Gosh that sounds so beautiful though to me, that somebody would say, you know, I'm just going to give a little bit to anyone who asks. Gosh.

Laurie Styron: Well, people really care, you know. I mean Americans are very generous and that's, you know, one of the great things about us, is that the reason this, that this fraud exists or that this, you know, legal exploitation exists in other cases is because we're good, right. It's because we want to do good things. We have compassion and empathy, and we know that there's a lot of need, and we feel a duty to our fellow man to give back. And that's a wonderful thing, right. So we definitely don't want to take these instances of fraud or misleading marketing and say, hey, this is a reason not to donate. It's not a reason not to donate, it's a reason to do research before you donate, and that should really be the takeaway.


Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree, and of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.