‘Tis the Season to Get Scammed

by Diane Dimond on December 14, 2015

Especially Not Over the Holiday Season

Especially Not Over the Holiday Season!

It’s that time of year again. People want your money.

Charities know folks are in a giving frame of mind as the holidays draw near. Rip-off artists also realize that during this season folks are often just too busy to notice a scam when it’s right under their nose.

Hey, thieves need holiday spending money too and aren’t fussy about how they get it.

One old scam that’s now returned is the fake phone call from the Internal Revenue Service. The Treasury Inspector General reports more than 4,500 people have needlessly forked over more than $23 million over the last two years and now the IRS impostors are back, targeting victims in several states. They  claim you owe unpaid taxes and face immediate arrest if you don’t pay up via debit card or wire transfer. Advice? Just hang up, secure in the knowledge that the IRS only communicates via mail and will never call threatening arrest.

The IRS Doesn't Call First

The IRS Doesn’t Call First

Another current scam:  Someone calls pretending to be with the FBI, even mimicking your local FBI’s phone number on caller ID. They may even have the last four digits of your Social Security number. They’ll say you must immediately pay up on your a.) Student loan, b.) Outstanding parking tickets or c.) Unpaid taxes via MoneyGram. Again, just hang up. If you’re in trouble the FBI visits you, they don’t call ahead.

Also, this holiday season be aware of the so-called Skimmer Scam. Thieves are installing teensy devices that can read credit and debit cards as you swipe them. They can even secretly film which keys you punch in as your PIN number. Once used only at ATM machines police are now getting skimmer reports from victims doing business at gas stations and restaurants. Using cash instead of plastic will keep you safer.

Skimmers Hidden From View

Skimmers Hidden Behind Gas Pump Panel

And, for those looking for year-end charitable tax deductions be careful. Not all organizations are created equal. Make sure you’re giving to a legitimate organization and not to someone who’s simply stuffing your money into their pocket. Check out organizations though websites like CharityWatch.org.

This non-profit group says it doesn’t just take a charity’s word for where your money goes, it actually investigates public documents to double check the money path. Generally, CharityWatch.org recommends giving money only to groups with an established track record, those that spend at least 75% of their budget actually servicing the needy.

“A charity should spend no more than $25 dollars to raise $100,” according to the CharityWatch website. And they list top-rated charities in categories as diverse as animal protection, literacy services and programs for police, firefighters and military veterans.

That brings us to the ugly side of charity solicitation.

Support Their Charities - - But Wisely

Support Their Charities – – But Wisely

According to CharityNavigator.org, another group that keeps track of charitable organizations, 6 out of 10 on their official list of “Inefficient Fundraisers” have the words “Police”, “Sheriff”, “Veterans” or Firefighters in the title.

Being labelled as “Inefficient” doesn’t mean the particular charity is illegitimate, it just means they spend a higher percentage of their donations on trying to bring in more donations.

My local volunteer fire department may not be the most efficient fundraiser – they don’t even warrant a mention at the websites I’ve mentioned – but I know their good works first hand so I freely give.

But be especially careful when someone is soliciting for returning military or veterans.

“Crooks gravitate to veteran’s charities because they’re lucrative,”

Check Charities Before You Give

Check Charities Before You Give

Ken Berger, CharityNavigator’s CEO told USA Today. “It is a very powerful mission that pulls at many people’s heartstrings. They see a big bucket of money to rip off.”

So, general tips to help you determine where you should give this holiday season:

  • Don’t give money to people who ask for donations on the street or outside retail stores. Not even if they are in uniform or have an official sounding name.
  • Don’t give money to those who call on the phone unless you are already familiar with the organization. Be very careful giving out your credit card information on the phone.
  • Don’t be guilt-tripped into giving money to a group because they sent you greeting cards, address stickers, blankets or some other gift. Generally, that’s not thought to be an efficient fundraising tactic.
  • Before you give check with your local Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints against the organization. Also, the IRS keeps an on-line data base of qualified charities you can check.

This really is the season for open hearts but no one wins if you fall prey to fraud – except the thief.

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