Diane Dimond: ‘Tis the season to get scammed
It’s that time of year again. People want your money.
Charities know folks are in a giving frame of mind as the holidays draw near. Rip-off artists also realize that during this season folks are often just too busy to notice a scam when it’s right under their noses.
Hey, thieves need holiday spending money, too, and aren’t fussy about how they get it.
One old scam that’s now returned is the fake phone call from the Internal Revenue Service. The Treasury Inspector General reports more than 4,500 people have needlessly forked over more than $23 million over the last two years and now the IRS impostors are back, targeting victims in several states. They claim you owe unpaid taxes and face immediate arrest if you don’t pay up via debit card or wire transfer. Advice? Just hang up, secure in the knowledge that the IRS only communicates via mail and will never call threatening arrest.
Another current scam: Someone calls pretending to be with the FBI, even mimicking your local FBI’s phone number on caller ID. They may even have the last four digits of your Social Security number. They’ll say you must immediately pay up via MoneyGram on your A) student loan, B) outstanding parking tickets or C) unpaid taxes. Again, just hang up. If you’re in trouble, the FBI visits you; they don’t call ahead.
This holiday season, also be aware of the so-called “skimmer scam.” Thieves are installing teensy devices that can read credit and debit cards as you swipe them. They can even secretly film which keys you punch in for your PIN number. These were once used only at ATM machines, but police are now getting skimmer reports from victims doing business at gas stations and restaurants. Using cash instead of plastic will keep you safer.
And for those looking for year-end charitable tax deductions: Be careful. Not all organizations are created equal. Make sure you’re giving to a legitimate organization and not to someone who’s simply stuffing your money into his pocket. Check out organizations though websites such as CharityWatch.org.
This nonprofit group says it doesn’t just take a charity’s word for where your money goes; it actually investigates public documents to double-check the money path. Generally, CharityWatch recommends giving money only to groups with an established track record, those that spend at least 75 percent of their budget actually servicing the needs they exist to address.
“A charity should spend no more than $25 dollars to raise $100,” according to the CharityWatch website. And they list top-rated charities in categories as diverse as animal protection, literacy services and programs for police, firefighters and military veterans.
That brings us to the ugly side of charity solicitation.
According to CharityNavigator.org, another group that keeps track of charitable organizations, 6 out of 10 on their official list of “Inefficient Fundraisers” have the words “police,” “sheriff,” “veterans” or “firefighters” in the title.
Being labeled “Inefficient” doesn’t mean the particular charity is illegitimate; it just means they spend a higher percentage of their donations on trying to bring in more donations.
My local volunteer fire department may not be the most efficient fundraiser – they don’t even warrant a mention on the websites I’ve mentioned – but I know their good works firsthand, so I freely give.
But be especially careful when someone is soliciting for returning military or veterans.
“Crooks gravitate to veteran’s charities because they’re lucrative,” Ken Berger, former CEO of CharityNavigator, told USA Today. “It is a very powerful mission that pulls at many people’s heartstrings. They see a big bucket of money to rip off.”
So, here are some general tips to help you determine where you should give this holiday season.
• Don’t give money to people who ask for donations on the street or outside retail stores, not even if they are in uniform or have an official-sounding name.
• Don’t give money to those who call on the phone unless you are already familiar with the organization. Be very careful giving out your credit card information on the phone.
• Don’t be guilt-tripped into giving money to a group because they sent you greeting cards, address stickers, blankets or some other gift. Generally, that’s not thought to be an efficient fundraising tactic.
• Before you give, check with your local Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints against the organization. Also, the IRS keeps an online database of qualified charities you can check.
This really is the season for open hearts, but if you fall prey to fraud no one wins except the thief.