Better Business by Robb Hicken: Scams look to cash in on disasters

August 22, 2013 

Televised reports from Central Idaho show walls of flames creeping through pristine forests toward Sun Valley Resort and the communities of Hailey and Ketchum. Residents have been moved out.

The Red Cross set up a shelter at the Ketchum Community Center near the airport and had 41 residents the first night, and 14 more arriving the next morning.

"While we appreciate the offers, we do not need additional volunteers," Barbara Fawcett, communication specialist for Red Cross of Greater Idaho, said. "The shelter is staffed with trained Red Cross volunteers who are versed in shelter management and casework."

She says Red Cross sees an upswing in financial contributions and volunteer inquiries whenever there is a natural disaster, and warns people to verify they are giving to the proper organization. Financial donations will be used to provide food, shelter and for staffing, she says.

Better Business Bureau warns that disasters like these pull on the heartstrings of caring individuals. Scammers know this and may be calling you. Check out the organization before you give.

BBB encourages the following:

Be cautious when giving online. In response to unsolicited spam messages, emails and social media posts that claim to link to a relief organization, go directly to the charity's website. The FBI and others raised concerns about websites and new organizations that were created overnight, allegedly to help victims.

Rely on expert opinion when it comes to evaluating a charity. Be cautious when relying on third-party recommendations such as bloggers or other websites, as they may not have fully researched the relief organizations they list. Go to www.bbb.org/charity to research charities and relief organizations and verify that they are accredited by BBB and meet the 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.

Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations will assist relief victims. Despite what an organization might claim, charities have fundraising and administrative costs. Even a credit card donation will involve, at a minimum, a processing fee. If a charity claims 100 percent of collected funds will be assisting disaster victims, the truth is the organization is still probably incurring fundraising and administrative expenses. It may use some of its other funds to pay these costs, but the expenses will still be incurred.

Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the impacted areas. Unless the charity already has staff in the affected areas, it may be difficult to bring in new aid workers to provide assistance quickly. See if the charity's website clearly describes what the charity can do to address immediate needs.

Find out if the charity is providing direct aid or raising money for other groups. Some charities may be raising money to pass along to relief organizations. If so, you may want to consider "avoiding the middleman" and give directly to those that have a presence in the region. Or, at a minimum, check out the ultimate recipients of these donations to see whether they are equipped to provide aid effectively.

Gifts of clothing, food or other in-kind donations. In-kind drives for food and clothing, while well intentioned, may not necessarily be the quickest way to help those in need - unless the organization has the staff and infrastructure to distribute such aid properly. Ask the charity about its transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those who are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.

Bottom line: Donations to Red Cross of Greater Idaho can be made online at www.redcross.org/idaho.

Robb Hicken: 947-2115

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