Use caution when giving for holidays
December 20, 2011
Giving back during the holidays may be as important a tradition as watching George Bailey discover it is a wonderful life. Or enjoying a holiday ham with family. Or even leaving cookies and milk for St. Nick. Charitable donations reach their peak during the holiday season, often keeping community nonprofits afloat through next year. But the Utah Office of Consumer Protection warns Utahns to be careful about where they might send a check.
"The Christmas Season brings out the altruism," said division director of consumer protection Traci Gundersen, "but there are also more scams during Christmas."
According to the Center of Philanthropy, the average person makes 24 percent of his or her annual donations between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Not only are there more donations, the actual donations are larger on average during the month of December according to the Network for Good. Donations during the holidays averaged $142, where the entire year average gift donation was $91.
For Park City residents in particular, Gundersen warned of potential scams.
"You feel ripped off if you donate to a fake charity, and then it hurts the real charities that are out there," she said. "And Park City is a more affluent area of Utah. Affluence seems to draw more con artists."
Jane Patten, executive director Peace House, the Park City domestic violence shelter, agreed.
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"Every nonprofit would like to get donations," Patten said. "But the most common risk for any donation is that the money is just not going where people think its going. Is it going to high-priced executives rather than programs?"
Patten said that online donations also have to be researched because just like online shopping, people need to make sure they are protected from fraud.
But even with the scams out there, the real charities also know people are more willing to give during the holidays and are seeking donations.
"It’s an important time for all of us," Patten said. "People give with their hearts more at the end of the year."
One year the Peace House had a little girl in the program who had a serious infection in her tooth and needed to find medical attention. Patten said she remembered how much pain the girl was in, her swollen cheek and inability to chew.
"We got a call from someone in hotel in Park City on Christmas Eve. This man asked what we needed, if it was toys or food. I told him what I really needed was to be able to pay a dentist for this little girl’s family."
Patten said the girl was able to get last-minute surgery from a nearby dentist with a donation from the anonymous man.
"The timing was so amazing," Patten added. "We have little miracles like that all the time. The Summit County community is so caring, so giving."
Even with all the good work from Utah nonprofits out there, Gundersen said its important to do the research when donating.
"It’s one thing for me to think I’m helping some sick child," Gundersen said. "It’s another when I find out I’m helping a deadbeat pay his rent."
Gundersen said checking to see if a charity is legitimate is easy. The Department of Consumer Protection requires all charities, whether a million-dollar operation or a penny jar in a gas station, to register. Anyone can look for registered nonprofits at http://www.dcp.utah.gov/consumerinfo/lists.html.
Gundersen said oftentimes a scam will play to someone’s emotions but offer very little information on how the money will be used, often using back stories involving veterans, children with cancer or relief aid. Other groups will use names that are similar to well-known charities.
"It’s typically a Regular Joe who ends up being the victim of these scams," Gundersen said. "Half the time you don’t even know. You just assume when you see a picture of someone on a jar out there on the counter that it is legitimate, and you have a handful of change that’s easy to give."
Gundersen said another helpful tip is to check on how donations to the nonprofit will actually be used. While many organizations are legitimate and use donations to help those they claim, others have excessive overhead and administrative costs where it takes 90 cents to raise a dollar she added.
"Make sure its something you believe in and their being responsible in how they use that money," Gundersen said.