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Charity Donation Scams flourish during holidays

Shelly from Toston (who didn’t want her last name published for privacy reasons) smiled at first when she opened her mail. A sweepstakes notice appeared, and the enclosed $3,800 cashier’s check sure looked good.

But Shelly smelled something fishy, so she looked a little closer. The telephone number she was supposed to call for instructions on how to send in a fee to collect the rest of her “winnings” had a Canadian area code. So she got on the Internet and did some more homework.

Sure enough, the sweepstakes was a scam.

“Thank God I have half a brain,” she said. She didn’t deposit the check and didn’t follow the directions for claiming the rest of her “prize.”

Shelly was glad she didn’t fall for the trick, but sounded disappointed that the money wasn’t real.

“The holidays are coming up, I’ve got bills to pay. That money sure would have come in handy,” she said ruefully, underscoring how easy it would be for people for whom money is tight to fall for a scam because they want so badly to believe it’s true.

Jen Carlson, operations and bank security officer at American Federal Savings Bank, said that the money order scam is one of the most common, but with printing and Internet technology improving each year, the scams are getting more sophisticated and difficult to foil.

In addition to mail scams, Carlson said bank customers are also being scammed on the Internet — not only through “phishing” e-mails, which look like they’re coming from reputable Web sites, but in chat rooms and dating service sites as well.

“It’s usually someone with a hard-luck story,” she said. “They will get a relationship going with this person, and pretty soon they’re asking for money.”

Carlson offered several several tips for consumers to protect themselves. In addition to the obvious — don’t respond to lottery letters when you know you didn’t enter a lottery, and don’t give out any personal information — she said there are other steps people can take to avoid losing money or having a run-in with identity theft.

“Buy a shredder, and shred any papers that have personal information on them,” she said. “On your computer, make sure you install the latest and best firewall protection you can get.”

Other tips from Carlson: opt out of credit card solicitations in the mail; add your name to the federal Do Not Call list for telemarketers and once a year get copies of your credit reports free of charge from the three major reporting companies through www.annualcreditreport.com.

“Even if you’re not necessarily worried about being a victim of identity theft, it’s a good idea to know what’s in your credit report, so if there are mistakes, you can fix them,” she said.

Giving takeaways

As America heads into the giving season, many scam artists prey on people’s generosity, according to the Montana attorney general’s office. Mike McGrath said one way Montanans can make sure their money is going where they think it is is to give to a local organization, rather than respond to something that appears to be a national solicitation.

Other tips from McGrath’s office include:

Be wary of appeals for money that play on emotions, including pleas to help children or to give money to causes recently in the news, like earthquake, hurricane or tsunami victims.

If a telephone solicitor doesn’t offer it, ask for a phone number and physical address of the charity, and do some homework before making a donation. Call the charity to ask if it has authorized the solicitation — but be cautious; anyone with a phone can pretend to be a charity.

Ask if the solicitor is a paid fundraiser or a volunteer, and ask what percentage of the donation goes to the cause and what percentage goes to administration expenses.

Instead of giving a credit card or bank account number, write a check and put it in the mail. Also, don’t pay with cash, as it’s easily stolen and harder to document for both fraud and tax purposes.

If the solicitor claims the money will help local organizations, contact the organizations separately to see if they authorized the solicitation.

Don’t be pressured into making a fast donation. A reputable charity will be just as grateful for a donation tomorrow as it is today, while a scammer may pressure people into giving immediately.

By JOHN HARRINGTON - IR Business Editor - 11/26/06 can be reached at 447-4080 or john.harrington@helenair.com

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