FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER
From 2014 to 2017, charities associated with a Florida organization called Help the Vets raised $20 million with patriotic, heartrending calls to aid veterans in need. “For thousands of disabled veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving an arm and a leg isn’t simply a figure of speech — it’s a harsh reality,” a typical fundraising letter read.
There was just one problem: According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), almost none of that money went to help servicemen and women. Help the Vets spent 95 percent of donated dollars on administrative costs, compensation for its founder, and more fundraising. The now-defunct organization was targeted as part of a massive 2018 crackdown on a particularly shameful subset of charity fraud: scams that exploit Americans’ gratitude for military members’ service and sacrifice.
Sham veterans charities don’t just steal or misspend your money; they divert millions of dollars that might otherwise flow to the many honorable organizations providing mental health care, housing, job training and other vital services to veterans and their families. Older people can be especially appealing targets, the FTC says.
These outfits use the same outreach techniques as trusted charities — letters, phone calls, email, texts — and often adopt similar names, but they rely on deceptive pitches and high-pressure tactics to wear down donors. A little research can go a long way in weeding out phony appeals. Don’t let scammers curb your generosity toward those who serve — but take steps to ensure your donated dollars truly support them.
- Pressure to donate immediately. A legitimate veterans charity will welcome your donation whenever you choose to make it.
- Claims that you’ll get a prize or win a sweepstakes if you give. That’s illegal, according to the FTC.
- A thank-you for a donation you don’t recall making. Phony fundraisers try to trick you into thinking you’ve already given to the cause, to lower your resistance to donating “again.”
- Do get an address, phone number and website for the organization.
- Do ask for details on the charity’s mission, how many service members and families it helps, and how much it spends on programs as opposed to overhead and fundraising.
- Do search online for the charity's name and words like “scam” or “complaint."
- Do check whether the organization is registered with the appropriate state charity regulator.
- Do look up reports and ratings from charity evaluators and data resources like those listed below under "More Resources."
- Don’t make a donation in cash or by wire transfer or gift card — the payment methods favored by scammers. It’s safer to pay by check or credit card.
- Don’t take a charity's name at face value. Deceptive military charities seek to exploit your patriotism and sympathy by using words like "warriors,” “heroes” and "disabled" in their branding.
- Don’t mistake a charity appeal that comes in the mail for a bill. Some bogus fundraisers disguise solicitations as invoices, hoping you’ll think you have to pay.
- The Federal Trade Commission website has practical advice on giving wisely to veterans and military causes, covering crowdfunding and social media appeals as well as charities.
- The BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, CharityWatch and Guidestar provide a bevy of online resources to research groups purporting to raise money for veterans, including ratings, reviews, and tax and financial data.
- If you’ve been solicited or victimized by a bogus veterans charity, report it to the FTC and your state’s charity regulator.
Published: Dec. 3, 2018
More From the Fraud Resource Center