Video: Avoiding Haiti charity scams

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    >>> an update the red cross said they have received $2 million by texted donations, when you text 90999, the word "haiti" $10 is charged to your phone bill and goes right to the red cross . they are gathering a lot of money. when disasters, good hearted people want to help. all too often there are scammers out there hoping to exploit the situation. joining me bob sullivan , a senior writer for and also the author of the new book, stop getting richd off. why consumers get screwed and why you can always get a fair deal . the fbi put out a warning yesterday, what are the scams already taking place.

    >> you know, contessa, two things are guaranteed when there's a disaster. america will be generous and scum bags will show up and try to exploit the situation. there are four or five things that already started to appear. there's e-mail scams. there's computer viruses being sent. be very careful about this. someone sends an e-mail, click on this picture, could be a virus, don't click on it. another thing to worry about, search engine poisoning. folks set up these fake websites and you go on google like haiti relief, donate money, they cram themselves into the search results . click on one of two of those links thinking you're donating money you'll end up with a virus on your computer or someone attacking you. really there's one overarching piece of advice. go to addresses you know, got to the browser and type in yourself. don't click on links in e-mails or search results . do it yourself.

    >> in many cases there are e-mails going back and forth. some say my church is going here, if you want to donate to the relief effort, is there a danger in those e-mail solicitations.

    >> there is. i certainly don't want to kill anybody's spirit at times of help because that's what happens at times like this. scammers know what to insert in e-mails. it looks like they are part of a conversation. they say, i'm part of the church, too. so many people belong to these large chumpbls. one thing people won't do at normal times people are texting money. slow down and do it the old-fashioned way. call and you'll be safe.

updated 1/15/2010 5:36:57 PM ET 2010-01-15T22:36:57

Give money to help Haiti by cell phone or via online? The answer may depend on how much you want to give. The mobile giving campaign launched this week seeks smaller amounts — such as $5 and $10 per person.Larger donations are best made through other means.

That's because mobile donations, at this stage, are meant to be almost as small as the devices themselves.

Wireless carriers are adding the donated amounts to customers’ bills, then getting the funds to charities. But there are limits to the amounts that can be charged, varying by carrier “to reasonably prevent a runaway train on a subscriber's bill,” said David Diggs, vice president of wireless Internet development for CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry trade group.

For example, in AT&T's case, “The limit for giving ... is five times per month for $5 donations, and three times per month for $10 donations, or a total of $55 — provided that $55 doesn’t put you over the overall $100 premium content limit,” said Steven Schwadron, an AT&T spokesman.  “Premium content” is what wireless carriers call extra add-ons like ring tones or music, and for now, mobile donations fall into that sphere.

As of Friday, more than $9 million in mobile donations raised for Haiti as of Thursday was pledged to the American Red Cross. The organization is requesting contributions in $10 increments from cell phone customers and sees the mobile effort as a way of augmenting its other fundraising means, including online, 800-numbers and donations.

‘Testament’ to American spirit
“I don’t think we expected anything like the outpouring of support the public has shown” in the mobile effort, said Wendy Harman, social media manager for the American Red Cross. “The needs in Haiti are tremendous and we want to thank the people who continue to donate and help the American Red Cross meet that need. Raising this amount of money $10 at a time is a true testament to the American spirit.”

The American spirit is generous, but also impulsive at times. That's why before you part with your money, whether online or by cell phone, make sure you know who you're donating it to. It's quick and easy to do by cell phone, taking only a minute or two using text-messaging, and it doesn't take much longer to do it via the Web.

Don't “donate to someone who contacts you out of the blue with an unsolicited e-mail, phone call, or text message,” advises the Federal Trade Commission. “It’s better to give through a Web site or phone number that you know is legitimate.”

The mobile-giving campaign has several legitimate organizations participating. In addition to the Red Cross, there's the Clinton Foundation Haiti Relief Fund, International Medical Corps and International Rescue Committee. More charities are being added, said Jim Manis, chairman and CEO of the Mobile Giving Foundation.

The foundation has been working with Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, the nation's largest wireless carriers, as well as others, on the Haiti mobile campaign.

Expediting donations
The wireless carriers have vowed to expedite donations to charitable groups helping Haiti. On Friday, Verizon Wireless said it sent nearly $3 million to the American Red Cross, "representing dollars pledged by texting customers," even before collecting the money pledged by its users.

"This represents donations made by Verizon Wireless customers for the first two days of the campaign from 12:01 a.m. EST on Wednesday, Jan. 13 through 2 p.m. EST on Friday, Jan. 15," the company said.

Sprint also took a similar step Friday, making a $1.2 million donation "immediately" to various Haiti relief programs.

Normally, the carrier said, it would take 30 to 60 days to transfer the contributions from customers to relief agencies. But because of "the overwhelming support from our customers to the relief efforts, Sprint is donating a bulk of the committed dollars immediately."

Easy to do
Mobile donating is fast and easy, taking only a matter of minutes. In the Red Cross’ case, phone users text the word “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10, and when prompted, hit “YES” to confirm the donation.

“If someone wants to give $100 or $200, it would be better to go online or to call the charity,” said Diggs of CTIA. "The notion behind this was that it was a way for Americans to do something right now.”

Steve Daigneault of M+R Strategic Services, which works with online giving campaigns for groups like Oxfam America, the National MS Society and Habitat for Humanity International, agrees.

“While we wouldn't advocate that an organization choose one tactic over the other as both are highly effective, online fundraising can process larger gifts,” he said.

“Online giving is a more tried-and-true channel that can handle billions of transactions securely ... An added benefit of going through a trusted organization's Web site is the ability to verify their legitimacy and evaluate how they spend donations on third-party watchdog sites, such as Charity Navigator or Charity Watch.”

Manis of the Mobile Giving Foundation says donating via text message appeals to a younger generation of contributors, one that “may not have a credit card” and wants “some immediacy and response” in terms of the money they give, or “an older demographic that doesn’t want (follow-up) spam mail in their inbox.”

“The impact here, from Haiti relief efforts, is really having a huge, grass-roots effect on philanthropy,” Manis said. “So these are, I think, new givers, by and large.”

Other FTC recommendations
No matter how you give in the wake of the Haiti disaster, the FTC has these recommendations:

• Give directly to the charity, not the solicitors for the charity. Solicitors take a portion of the proceeds to cover their costs, which leaves less for victim assistance.

• Do not give out personal or financial information — including your Social Security number or credit card and bank account numbers — to anyone who solicits a contribution from you. Scam artists use this information to commit fraud against you.

• Check out any charities before you donate. Contact the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance Web site. More information is also available on the FTC's "Charity Checklist" Web page.

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