Beware Holiday Charity Scams

‘Tis the season of giving. . . but from Santa skimming the Salvation Army pot to Twitter appeals for fake flood victim relief, the holidays often bring out criminals who definitely believe that it is better to receive than give. After dealing with three charity scam cases in the past month, I thought this would be a good time for a refresher course on how to figure out if a charity is legit. So, before you pull out your wallet, check out these six tips.

1. Call the IRS.

Most tax-exempt organizations are required to file an annual return –  normally some variation of Form 990, with the IRS. Ask for literature from the charity, and check out the mission statement, board of directors and financial statements.

If the form isn’t available on the website, request a copy. Charities, except for churches and public charities whose annual gross receipts are less than $5,000, are also required to make form 501 (c) (3), which verifies their federal tax exempt status, available to the public.

When all else fails, sometimes it’s best to go straight to the source and call the IRS.

Yes, I was on hold for 45 minutes yesterday, but I was able to verify that the children’s organization I was checking out did NOT have federal nonprofit status. So the PayPal button on the ‘fundraiser’ bit of the website was most likely donating straight to the site owner’s shoe fund.

2. Check with watchdog groups.

Groups like the Better Business Bureau and CharityWatch have tips for giving wisely, and services that allow you to find legitimate charities. The CharityWatch Charity rating guide advises that legitimate charities have at least 60% of charitable donations going to program services.

More than 40% earmarked for administrative fees is often a red flag.

3. Beware of sound-alike names.

Many charities – especially those that pop up after natural disasters – mimic the names of reputable ones, and in at least one case flood victims were duped by scammers impersonating actual FEMA officers.

I never give out bank information, either over the phone or in person, to someone soliciting a donation. Instead, I ask the charity to email me information, or send it to my PO Box (more on this later).

4. Don’t be fooled by a figurehead.

Don’t let the fact that a charity is trendy, or everyone else on your Christmas card list is doing it, pressure you into not asking questions. Remember: This is how Madoff and Enron happened!

Fraud occurs at every level: The New York Times reports that a Jewish community leader was charged with stealing $7 million from one of the city’s most influential social service organizations.

5. Don’t be pressured into ’embedded giving’.

I first noticed this phenomenon when buying toilet paper at Whole Foods. At the checkout, right before I swipe my card I’m asked if I want to save the whales or stop genocide. At Petco, they phrase the appeal in a way in which it is almost literally impossible to say ‘no’: Will I give a dollar to help save a homeless pet?

I’ve had my weak moments, but since so-called ’embedded giving’ is often very hard to track, customers may be better off checking ‘no’ at the counter and sending a donation to a reputable pet charity or shelter instead.

6. Remember the difference between ‘non-profit’, ‘tax exempt’ and ‘tax deductible’.

A company can file with the California Secretary of State and be listed as a ‘non-profit’ corporation, but this has nothing to do with the charity’s federal tax exempt status. To find out if a company can legally take donations, it’s worth checking with the IRS.

And remember, some legitimate tax exempt groups that are politically active or involved in lobbying cannot receive tax deductible donations.


Why garbage can be a gold mine

When I dreamed of becoming a private investigator, I never imagined a scenario in which I would be sitting in 90 degree weather sifting through slimy piles of rotten garbage.   But in some cases, the garbage can be a gold mine. For example, I recently had a case where a client’s soon-to-be-ex husband was hiding assets in a divorce case. She needed help proving that he was capable of paying child support.

Often public record searches help me link bank accounts to a person, but in order to find out the balance, or get phone records, I need a court order – or a thick pair of rubber gloves.

But as an ethical private investigator, I know that I have to operate within the law to get my clients crucial information. The 1999 Gramm-Leach Bliley Act imposed strict penalties for individuals who obtain information about a third party account through pretext or deceit. In 2007, President Bush signed the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006, making it a federal felony to fraudulently acquire phone records.

Here’s my checklist for making one person’s trash my treasure.

1) Check local laws. 

Trash that has been put on the curb for collection is generally not considered private property. In the 1988 California vs. Greenwood case, the court ruled that police could conduct a warrantless search of trash that had been left for collection outside the curtilage of the home. This allowed police to use the evidence of drug use that they found in defendant Billy Greenwood’s garbage as they basis for their search warrant.  According to the court, Greenwood had no expectation of privacy when it came to his trash.

But courts have ruled against investigators in cases where they entered an area marked ‘Private Property’. When weighing whether or not the home owner has a reasonable expectation of privacy, courts may also consider whether or not the can has locks or is in an area that is not publicly accessible. If the subject lives in an apartment building where the communal dumpster is behind gates or has the can right next to the house rather than on the curb, I would most likely steer clear.

Business investigations have another caveat: In certain cases, objects discarded can be considered trade secrets.

2) Do your prep work. 

After figuring out which day is trash day, I scout out a subject’s garbage can so that I can find out where the can is located, and what type of bags he/she uses. I also figure out the schedule, including what time the subject leaves for work as well as the time that the trash is taken out and collected (the local trash company can also provide information on trash pickup schedules).

In addition to my usual Detective Bag, I gather a few extra items.

  • Latex gloves
  • Baggies with Sharpies to mark and collect evidence
  • A flashlight
  • Extra garbage bags that are the same color/type the subject uses
  • Enclosed plastic shoes like Wellies
  • An old cotton sweatsuit that I don’t care about ruining

3) Choose your method.  

Some investigators swear by getting new trash cans and swapping out the old ones. For this, you need a van, and a floor with plastic covering. Other times, I can garbage surf in the open. Los Angeles actually has a Dumpster Diving Meetup Group, and recycling and ‘Freeganism’ are all the rage.

4) Have patience. 

Digging through garbage is disgusting. But don’t be tempted to rush the drying process. Spread everything out and remember that the most helpful documents are often the ones that people bury the deepest under that rotting sushi. Speaking of which. . .

5)  Don’t go out for seafood immediately afterwards. 

I LOVE sushi. But after getting week-old spicy tuna rolls stuck in my cleavage, it takes me a couple of days to reset. Actually going out to dinner anywhere immediately afterwards is tricky, unless your date likes the smell of rotting PF Chang’s combined with a hospital morgue.

What Bill Clinton taught me about body language

My first assignment as a student journalist at NYU was to get a picture of something political, so I hid in a hotel bathroom stall for hours and impersonated a reporter from El Diario to get my shot of Bill Clinton. I recently had the opportunity to finally get a shot with him – and observe up close the charismatic aura that has been called a ‘reality distortion field’. I’m meant to be an impartial observer – yet he had no trouble getting the upper hand.  The man is a master of body language, and as an investigator there is a lot that I can learn from his ability to seduce in a split second.

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THE ATLANTIC: Learning to fight Sherlock Holmes style

It’s sundown at a small park in Burbank and I’m dressed in head-to-toe black, carrying a big stick and ready to street fight, Sherlock Holmes style. I’m not exactly a ninja—the closest I’ve been to hand-to-hand combat was fighting over the last cupcake at Thanksgiving. But even so, I have signed up to learn bartitsu, the esoteric and gentlemanly Victorian art of self defense. Before I chicken out I spot my instructor, Matt Franta, a dapper gentleman in a three-piece suit.

Franta’s bio describes him as an actor, fight choreographer, and stunt performer with black belts in tae kwon do and hapkido as well as experience in karate, judo, fencing, and kickboxing. He’s also a member of the International Knife Throwers Association.

Bartitsu was developed by Edward Barton-Wright, a British engineer who moved to Japan in 1895. After returning to London, just before the turn of the century, he created a mixed martial art hybrid, combining elements of judo, jujitsu, British boxing, and fighting with a walking stick.



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