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Experts warn: When it comes to aiding Haiti, let the donor beware
The impulse to give money or other donations is a natural reaction to the horrific images of suffering and destruction now coming out of Haiti.
It is also a generous impulse that con artists, identity thieves and scammers are ready to exploit, just as they did after the 2004 Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, say state and federal authorities and watchdogs of nonprofit groups.
The Haiti catastrophe marks the first time that a significant number of emergency aid donations are being made via text message, said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance. But there too, experts say, you should be careful. The fraudsters have evolved as fast as the technology.
So far there have been no reports of suspected Haiti-relief scams in Florida, but in the wake of natural disasters the number of groups appealing for donations can furiously proliferate, and not all are legitimate. Within two weeks of Hurricane Katrina, federal authorities identified more than 4,000 websites offering relief services or aid, with many of those sites based overseas.
"The people in Haiti need massive amounts of aid and we encourage our citizens to be as generous as possible in helping," Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said Thursday. "But you need to make sure the donations you are planning to make go to legitimate organizations that will benefit Haiti and not to con artists who undoubtedly will try to exploit the tragedy by lining their own pockets with your donations."
When considering where and how to give, authorities and watchdogs say:
Do not respond to unsolicited e-mails and be skeptical of messages on social networking sites, especially appeals for money from someone claiming to be a surviving victim or Haitian government official. Be cautious of opening e-mails from unknown senders that have attachments labeled as disaster photos. These files could contain viruses.
You can check if a charity is registered with the state by calling 1-800-435-7352 or going to the website http://www.800helpfla.com .
Give to charities that have an established presence in Haiti. The Better Business Bureau says this is not the time to give to groups that are attempting to go into the Caribbean nation for the first time. The Better Business Bureau has a partial list of charities with an on-the-ground presence at http://www.bbb.org/us/article/charities-providing-haiti-earthquake-relief-14690.
Before text messaging a donation by cell phone, check to make sure you are giving to a reputable group and you are sending it to the correct number. The two most prominent groups raising money via texting are the American Red Cross (taking $10 donations from those who text "HAITI" to 90999 and musician Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti charity (taking $5 donations from people texting "YELE" to 501501).
If you are giving clothes, food or other items, make sure the group has the means to transport and distribute them in Haiti. While such collection efforts may be well-meaning, they may not be the quickest way to help those in need, Weiner said. Be especially wary of any group that isn't experienced in disaster relief.
Never give cash. Always write a check. Always make your donation directly to a group rather than giving money or a check to a middleman. If a group offers to send someone to pick up your donation, be extremely wary. Legitimate groups will wait for the money.
If you think you have come in contact with a possible scam, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum urges you to call his fraud hotline at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM (1-866-966-7226). Anyone who thinks they may have been victimized over the Internet can contact the FBI at http://www.ic3.gov
Jon Burstein can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4491.