NEWARK – The devastation resulting from Hurricane Harvey’s landfall in Texas has New Jerseyans ready to help and show their support for the victims of the storm, but the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs has some advice for those looking to make donations: Beware of phony charities.The Division is urging consumers to “Investigate Before You Donate,” and avoid fraudulent charitable solicitations, when seeking to donate for victims of Harvey, which has dumped unprecedented amounts of rain on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
“New Jersey residents are always willing to help out their neighbors when tragedy strikes, often by making donations to aid with recovery,” said Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino. “Sadly, there are always those scammers who look to take advantage of disaster for their own benefit.”
“Those looking to help should seek out reputable and legitimate charities,” said Steve Lee, Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “Residents should always take the necessary steps to make sure their money is actually going to help those in need.”
To help consumers discern which charities are legitimate and to protect against scammers, the Division offers the following tips:
- Give to charities you know and trust. Never give to a charity you know nothing about. If a charity is new, that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't donate – but learn as much as possible before you decide to entrust the organization with your money. Especially after a natural disaster, many “pop up” charities often adopt names that include the name of the storm and may not have the ability or intention of carrying out the stated charitable mission.
- Learn about the charity's stated mission, and find out how, exactly it plans to use your money. Ask for literature and read it. Honest charities encourage you to ask questions.
- Contact Consumer Affairs' Charities Hotline at 973-504-6215 or state.nj.us/lps/ca2/charities to learn about specific charities. You can confirm whether a charity is registered or is exempt from registration requirements. (Certain religious or educational organizations, and those that raise less than $10,000 in a fiscal year, are exempt from the registration requirement).
- Don't be fooled by a convincing name or professional-looking website. Dishonest charities may use impressive names, or names that closely resemble those of respected, legitimate organizations.
- Don't succumb to pressure. Don't let yourself be pressured into giving, and don't feel you have to contribute on the spot. No legitimate organization will expect you to contribute immediately, even if you have given in the past.
- Ask if the charity uses a professional fundraiser and, if so, what percentage of your contribution will actually go toward relief efforts and how much will be used to pay the fundraiser.
- Beware of unsolicited and phony email notices that claim to be from a charity asking for your credit card information. This scam is called "phishing" and could be used by thieves to commit identity theft. If the charity is unfamiliar to you, check whether the group is registered with Consumer Affairs' Charities Registration Section. If the organization is registered or you know the organization, call directly to find out if the email notice is valid.
- Avoid cash donations if possible. Pay by credit card, or write a check directly to the charity.
- Do not make checks payable to individuals; make checks payable only to those organizations which you found listed as active in the Division database.
- Be wary of providing personal or financial information, even to charities you've confirmed are legitimate. Limit the information to what is needed to process your donation.
- Social media sites can also perpetuate scams. Do not blindly give via these mediums. As with any charity, investigate the groups behind such pleas to ensure that they come from a legitimate organization.
Consumers may obtain information about a charity in several ways. They can ask the charity itself (reputable charities encourage you to do so), or visit the charity's website.
Consumers can also obtain this information from the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. Visit the Division's Charities Registration page; call the Division's Charities Hotline at 973-504-6215 during regular business hours; or use the Division's free "New Jersey Charity Search" smartphone app.
Consumers are urged to report suspicious solicitations to their local police and to the Division of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504- 6200.
Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file an online complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or by calling one of the numbers referenced above.
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