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Give wisely in time of national tragedy
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippians are a very generous people, and when tragedy strikes as it did in the terrorist attacks on the United States, many want to give money for a good cause.
Unfortunately, some people see the opportunity for fraud at times when emotions are high. Bogus charities are formed and unscrupulous people sometimes take advantage of the good intentions of people.
David Blount, communications director for Secretary of State Eric Clark's office, said only a few people have reported possible instances of fraud related to charitable giving in the wake of the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
"This is a national concern, but so far, we've not seen a lot of it in Mississippi," Blount said of bogus charities. "It makes you sick to think that people would take advantage of this to make a quick buck. So far, I think people's patriotism has kept them from trying to exploit the situation."
The Secretary of State's office has a charities division responsible for regulating and enforcing the state's charity laws. The state Attorney General's office prosecutes charity fraud cases that occur and has reported receiving just one complaint of possible fraud.
The Better Business Bureau also investigates claims of fraud.
Blount said anyone who suspects that a charitable solicitation is fraudulent is encouraged to not give money and to contact the Secretary of State's office. Give the department the name of the organization and any other information gathered so the matter can be investigated.
Jan Lukens, Extension consumer management specialist at Mississippi State University's Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, said consumers should be cautious giving to organizations they are unfamiliar with or which have names similar to well-known charities.
"Pay very close attention to the exact name and ask for written literature," Lukens said. "One red flag is a charity advertising with nothing but a post office box. Without a physical address, it is harder to determine the legitimacy of an organization."
Lukens recommended donating to charities with a long history of helping. Consumers should avoid new groups they are unfamiliar with. Often organizations set up special accounts at banks to collect donations. While many of these are valid, research these before donating.
"I wouldn't want to discourage people from giving through banks, but know something about the fund-raising group and project before you contribute," Lukens said. "Banks make sure that funds are paid to the parties designated on the accounts. However, the bank is not responsible for monitoring how the funds are spent."
Contact the Mississippi Secretary of State's office at (601) 359-1633 or (888) 236-6167 to determine if a charity is legitimate or to report possible charity fraud. While there are many legitimate organizations collecting money, call (800) HELP NOW to donate to the American Red Cross or (800) SAL-ARMY to donate to the Salvation Army.