False charities target vulnerable

Experts suggest proactive approach before doling out dollars

Fraud experts say it’s best for donors to make direct contact with charities if possible. While there are warning signs to watch for over the phone, big smiles aren’t one of them.

Experts suggest proactive approach before doling out dollars

The holiday season and new year never fail to drive Victorians to give back to those less fortunate, both in their community and farther afield. But while rejuvenated spirits may prompt you to give, it’s a wise time to be aware of who exactly you’re giving to.

Charity fraud rates peak at the end of the year, just as many people are feeling their most generous. And, according to research estimates, false charities can cost the public up to $20 billion a year.

Like many other forms of financial abuse and exploitation, seniors are one of the demographics hit hardest by false charities. Elderly citizens are most commonly targeted for several reasons, including good credit ratings and a lifetime’s worth of savings. The Canadian Association of Retired Persons deals with some of those most vulnerable to fraud.

“Financial fraud is a very big problem and costs seniors in Canada many millions of dollars each year — money which they do not have time to earn back,” says Anthony Quinn, CARP’s national manager of community development.

Quinn says that charity fraud often goes unreported, since victims often don’t find out that their money didn’t go towards the intended cause.

“We hear more about members getting taken in with telephone scams, phishing scams and door-to-door repair and maintenance scams,” he says, adding that CARP continues to reinforce that the threat of any kind of fraud is real. “We are constantly reminding members to remain vigilant. We alert them to the latest frauds and scams making the rounds.”

In Victoria, most local organizations have yet to feel repercussions, despite polls that suggest Canadians are increasingly nervous about donating. Shannon Whissell, manager of communication and fund development at Victoria’s Cridge Centre for the Family, says that the established organization continues to instill confidence in its donors. Members are not cold-called for donations, however; they are mailed regular newsletters and donation forms.

“We’ve been around for 130 years — people are pretty aware of who we are and what we stand for,” Whissell says. “We have a strong history in the community, and we’re also lucky to have a very loyal, dedicated donor base.”

Still, Whissell says she can see how increased coverage of fraud cases could impact whether or not new donors reach out. A study released by Capital One Canada, Canadahelps.org and Volunteer Canada confirmed that while up to two-thirds of Canadians worry about charity fraud when they make contributions, 41 per cent don’t bother to check out organizations before donating.

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid fraud. Unless you’re happy to see your charitable donation lining the pockets of a scam artist, there are red flags to look out for.

Callers that apply undue pressure or act threateningly should always arouse suspicion, especially if they ask for an immediate donation. Be aware of charities that insist upon cash — organizations on the up-and-up usually don’t mind a paper trail.

Any canvasser that starts by thanking you for a previous pledge you don’t remember making should also set off alarms. Don’t assume you’ve simply forgotten your own past generosities — it’s likely the person is poised to scam you.

Finally, always listen for copycat names that could be misleading. Just because a charity sounds familiar doesn’t mean it’s legit. If you’re not sure, look it up.

Whissell says the best way for donors to make sure their donation is making it to the right cause is to look them up on Revenue Canada’s online directory and, even if a canvasser clears initial hurdles, be thorough before you hand your financial information over. Ask the caller or solicitor if they can send you their charity’s information in writing, and never give out your information over the phone or at the door — you can always write a cheque later.

So what’s the safest way to give back? Be proactive.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre suggests finding a local charity that you can get behind, and spending some time familiarizing yourself with it. Maybe even go out and volunteer. Then decide on the kind of contribution you can feel good about making — it’s gratifying, and you’ll feel less pressure to shell out the next time a charity, real or fake, calls on you. M

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