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Holiday Cons in WA: Gift Buyers, Givers Beware

PHOTO: Holiday generosity is a Washington tradition, but nowadays it's smart to check everything out before you buy or donate, from cash gift cards to shopping websites, to the charities seeking end-of-year contributions. Photo credit: Batman2000/FeaturePics.com.
PHOTO: Holiday generosity is a Washington tradition, but nowadays it's smart to check everything out before you buy or donate, from cash gift cards to shopping websites, to the charities seeking end-of-year contributions. Photo credit: Batman2000/FeaturePics.com.
December 10, 2014

OLYMPIA, Wash. - It's fine to put a few dollars in the red Salvation Army kettles this time of year, but if you're planning larger contributions to charity, there's more to be done than opening a wallet.

Holiday giving is one of the areas where well-meaning Washingtonians and their money are easily parted - and not always by scammers. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said about 130 professional fundraising companies do business here - and they split the donations with the charities they're working for, taking quite a chunk of the $572 million donated last year.

"The average percentage of contributions returned to charity clients was about 48 percent," she said. "So, $275 million made it to charities in Washington state. But realize that 52 percent of those dollars went to the commercial fundraisers."

Those who want every dollar to go to the charity, she said, should donate directly rather than being prompted by a phone solicitor. Wyman said this is the time of year when bogus charities with names very similar to legitimate ones crop up and also "smile and dial," asking for money. Any legitimate charity or commercial fundraiser is registered with the Secretary of State's office and can be looked up online.

Also online, AARP has a new webpage up this week at aarp.org/holidayscams, outlining some of the most common end-of-year cons. They include fake shopping websites and, as Wyman explained, gift cards that turn out to be "gifts" - but not for their intended recipients.

"People will scrape the numbers off the back and get the PIN number," she said, "and then if you load that card, they will hit it and they will swipe the money off the card before the intended receiver has a chance to actually cash it in."

She recommended that anyone who thinks they've been scammed should report it to the Secretary of State's office, Attorney General's office, local law enforcement or the AARP Fraud Fighter Call Center. Even small ripoffs can point investigators to larger patterns of theft that could lead to arrests.

The Secretary of State's charity and commercial fund-raiser look-up is online at sos.wa.gov/charities.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA