By TRE HARGETT
Secretary of State
Disasters like the tornadoes and floods that have pummeled a large swath of the United States, including parts of Tennessee, have a way of bringing out the best in some people - and the worst in others.
When many people see images of destruction on television or in their local newspapers, they feel called to help the victims. Quite often, their help comes in the form of donations to charitable organizations that are providing assistance to those in need.
Unfortunately, there are also a few unscrupulous people who will try to take advantage of the kindness of others. They set up bogus charities to bilk money from the unsuspecting.
I’m not suggesting that people stop giving money to charities. There are many reputable organizations that do a lot of good work in the communities they serve.
It is wise, however, for people to follow some basic rules when they’re thinking about making a donation.
First of all, if approached in person or contacted by telephone, never feel pressured into making a contribution “on the spot.” If you’re not familiar with the organization, start by asking some basic questions. How will the money be used? Where is the charity located? How long it has been in operation? How much of each donation goes for actual programs and services as opposed to administrative expenses?
If a solicitor can’t or won’t give you satisfactory answers to those questions, walk away or hang up the phone. Reputable charities aren’t going to insist that you give money right away. They should be willing to provide you an address where you can send a check.
That’s a really important rule, too: Paying by check is probably the best method when making a charitable contribution. Of course, the check should always be payable to the organization, not an individual, and it’s wise to get a receipt, also.
Paying by check gives you a record of the transaction for tax purposes. If you learn the organization is bogus, you may have an opportunity to stop payment before the check is cashed or deposited.
If you pay with cash, there’s no paper trail to follow if you discover you’ve been scammed. Your money is simply gone.
You should only make contributions by credit card to well-known and highly-trusted organizations to avoid potential problems with identity theft.
But before you make a decision to donate money, it’s a good idea to do some basic research.
Although there are some exceptions, our state law requires most charities to register with the Secretary of State’s Office’s Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming. Most charities have to file annual reports with the division, which include details about how contributions are being spent. The division’s main page on our website is: http://www.tn.gov/sos/charity/index.htm.
If the organization has a website of its own, it can also be a source of useful information for potential donors. Additionally, a quick Internet search may reveal news coverage or consumer reviews of the charity.
If you suspect that you’ve been scammed, report it right away. In Tennessee, the Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming has the authority to investigate violations of our law and impose civil penalties against violators. You can get in touch with an investigator from our office by calling (615) 741-2555.
Also, it’s not a bad idea to report suspicious or unscrupulous fundraising tactics to consumer groups like the Better Business Bureau. If you have a problem or suspected problem, reporting it may help someone else from falling victim to the same scam.
I want to reiterate that contributing money to charities is a good thing that can change people’s lives for the better. When consumers buy goods and services, particularly expensive goods and services, they usually do their homework to make sure their money is being well spent.
The same practice should be applied to charitable donations.
Tre Hargett is Tennessee’s Secretary of State and the current president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.