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Beware of phony charities

Q: I received an e-mail requesting a donation to a fund for the widows and orphans of the fire-fighters who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. I want to help, but I also want to make sure my money actually gets sent to the people it is supposed to. Can you tell me if this solicitation is legitimate?

A: It seems that the most terrible of times bring out the best in people. Relief organizations around the country have been overwhelmed by the generous donations that have been pouring in from concerned Americans. This is why it is especially troubling that some less-than-honorable people will use American generosity to fill their own pockets.
The Consumer Protection Division of my office has received manyinquiries from Texans who have received e-mail solicitations for charities that are supposed to benefit the victims of the terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.

Most charities in Texas are not required to register with the state. A few, however, such as public safety organizations, which would include firefighters, are required to register with the Secretary of State. You may want to contact that office to see if the organization has registered. While this office cannot attest to the legitimacy of any charity or business, here are some tips to help you avoid falling victim to a potential e-mail scam:

• If you aren’t familiar with the name of the organization or the person who sent the solicitation, it’s probably a fraud. Big, national charities don’t send mass e-mails soliciting funds. However, if you have donated to a charity in the past, you may be on their e-mail list.

• If you click on a link to donate, look at the URL in your browser. If the domain name of the URL is hidden, unfamiliar or different than the link’s text, the request is probably a scam.

• Verify the charity’s identity by phone before donating. Many phony charities imitate the name and style of a well-known organization to con people. If the charity refuses to answer your questions when you call, don’t donate.

• The e-mail extension “.org” doesn’t necessarily mean that the organization is a real charity. This type of extension is easy enough to register.

• Don’t assume that because the e-mail mentions “disaster relief,” the money will actually go to the victims of the attacks. Ask how the money will be used. The scams involved in these e-mails take several forms. Some e-mails are sent by spammers to a huge mailing list of e-mail addresses. The body of the e-mail contains links to real charities.

However, when you click on a link, the spammer gets notice that your e-mail address is an active one. This gets you on more spam mailings lists, which means you get more unwanted e-mail.

In another twist, the e-mail will point you to a Web page covered with banner ads and links to real charities. The owner of the Web page gets money each time a visitor clicks on one of the banner ads. While this type of scam doesn’t cost you anything directly, someone else profits from your willingness to donate.

The most troubling scams are those that involve outright fraud. The links in the e-mails point you to sites that look legitimate. But when you donate, your money and your credit card information go right into the pocket of a thief. Even worse, the people who truly need the money don’t see a dime of it.

Your best bet is to donate to well-known, well-established charities. These organizations will ensure that your money will go to the people who truly need it.

If you have received an e-mail solicitation that seems suspect, forward it to our office. You can send it by e-mail to consumerprotection@oag.state.tx.us. You can also forward it by US mail to Office of the Attorney General, P.O. Box 12548, Austin, Texas 78711.

For more information on consumer protection services offered by my office, visit our Web site at www.oag.state.tx.us.