Consumers warned against donating to fake charities over holidays

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COLUMBIA - 'Tis the season to give, but how can donors make sure their money is going to a good cause rather than a scam? 

Thanksgiving has passed and now people look forward to Christmas time. Many people chose to donate their money to charities during the holiday season.

Chief Council of the Consumer Protection Division of the Missouri Attorney General's Office, Joe Bindbeutel, said in an earlier interview charity scams are, unfortunately, decently common. 

"It's common because it's so lucrative for the scammers," Bindbeutel said. "There is very, very  little overhead. If a scammer is getting money under false pretenses, claiming to be a charity and just keeping the money, that does not require a whole lot of products to be produced."

The products he referred to are the way charities solicit. For example, mailing flyers, making phone calls or going door-to-door. 

On the bright side, there are several ways donors can ensure they're donating to real charities. 

"Google those names and put scam or put complaint in your Google search and you will find out that sometimes these names that look pretty legitimate are not," Bindbeutel said. 

Local and national charities have protocols they follow to collect money.

Executive Director of the Heart of Missouri United Way, Timothy Rich, said donors should be aware of those protocols and the way organizations they support conduct solicitations. 

The Salvation Army, for example, sets up what is known as the Kettle Drive, which is located in high volume areas to collect money. 

"We try to let the community know that there are certain ways that we collect money and certain ways we do not," Area Coordinator for the Salvation Army Major Richard Trimmell said. "We do not go door-to-door."

The Salvation Army solicits through the mail, kettle donations and through credit card donations online or in person. 

The Heart of Missouri United Way also has specific ways it reaches out to people for donations. Rich said the United Way does not call people unless they have already "pledged" the organization, which in that case it will ask donors for a pledge form.

"We do encourage people to write a check directly to Heart of Missouri United Way and either send it to us or if they want to call us and do a credit card donation we can do that," Rich said. 

Trimmell said if a donor's red flag goes up, give the Salvation Army a call. 

"There's no such thing as being too cautious, making a phone call and protecting your generosity," Trimmell said. 

The Attorney General's website has a list of what it calls reliable charities.