Skip to main content

UF Expert: Use Caution When Making Holiday Charity Donations

Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277

Mary Harrison, (352) 392-1868, ext. 243
Rudy Hamrick, (850) 488-2221

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — This year’s most appropriate holiday gift may be a charity donation made on behalf of a loved one, but watch out for con artists, says a University of Florida expert.

“Most charity fundraising is legitimate, but fraud activity increases during the holidays because people are in a giving mood,” said Mary Harrison, a professor of consumer education with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Because con artists often capitalize on recent disasters, consumers need to be especially careful when donating to relief efforts related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said.

“It gives you some idea how ruthless these people are, because they target well-known events where immediate help is needed,” she said. “Fortunately, most con artists are fairly easy to spot once you know what to look for.”

To avoid being taken advantage of, Harrison suggests the following:

  • Stick with charities you know and trust.
  • Initiate contact yourself. Legitimate charities maintain offices staffed with employees eager to hear from you, while con artists have to locate potential victims with roving in-person appeals, telemarketing and mailing.
  • Ask questions. If you’re approached by an unfamiliar charity, ask for the organization’s full name, local street address, purpose of their current fundraising and how the money will be used. Ask for written materials and say you’ll consider the request later.
  • Take your time. Beware of fund-raisers who won’t take no for an answer, or claim they have deadlines to meet.
  • Beware of high-pressure tactics. Legitimate charities value their reputations and don’t use dramatic emotional appeals.

To report in-person approaches by suspected charity con artists, contact local law enforcement authorities, Harrison said. For suspicious approaches made by telephone, call the National Fraud Information Center at (800) 876-7060 and for possible mail fraud, call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at (800) 372-8347.

Harrison said there are also organizations that operate in a gray area between criminal activity and true philanthropy, using a small portion of the money they raise for charity programs while most benefits the organization.

“In many states, charities are subject to regulation and their financial statements are a matter of public record,” she said. “Check with your state attorney general or consumer affairs office for information.”

In Florida, most charitable organizations must register with the Division of Consumer Services, part of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Rudy Hamrick, regulatory program administrator with the division.

The division publishes an annual “Gift Giving Guide” with financial information on every charity registered in the state, he said. The guide contains data such as the total amount of money raised by an organization and the amount used for charity programs.

The guide is available free by calling 800-HELP-FLA (435-7352) or using the division’s Web site, “Consumers can call us to ask about specific organizations,” Hamrick said.

The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance in Arlington, Va., evaluates charitable organizations nationwide, said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer. Besides funding information, the alliance also considers governance and solicitation practices. The evaluations, along with tips on giving and other information, are available at the alliance’s Web site,

In 2000, Americans donated $203 billion to charity, Weiner said. More than 80 percent of the money raised by charities in the United States is donated by individuals. About 800,000 U.S. organizations are classified as tax-exempt charities.