Beware of ?uncharitable' charities

By Ed Brock

Wanda Bender gets some interesting e-mails at the First Baptist Church of Morrow.

They aren't pleas for money, but instead they are cryptic messages from supposed missionaries who claim they have large amounts of money to give to the church. But the circumstances of the offer trigger a warning in Bender's head.

"They have so much money but it's in this other country's currency. Sometimes they have an attorney's number on the bottom to contact," said Bender, an administrative assistant at the church. "I've actually begun seeing (dubious e-mails) a little over a month ago, they started pouring in. I just delete them."

That's the advice Kara Sinkule, spokeswoman for the office of Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, had to give anybody who receives similar messages.

The holiday season is one of giving, and it's also a good time for those interested in taking to target their victims.

"We just want folks to remember to make sure they're giving to legitimate charities," Sinkule said.

Cox's office releases an annual "Uncharitable Charities" list each year to alert the public about charities that have a bad reputation for not using the donations they receive properly, but Sinkule said this year's list won't be released until late December or early January. In the meantime, the old list is still available on Cox's Web site.

The Web site, www.sos.state.ga.us, offers more options to reassure charitable people that their money would be going to a legitimate cause.

"You can go on our Web site and look up a financial snapshot of any charity," Sinkule said.

All charities are required to register with Cox's office, so if a charity isn't on the list it should be questioned.

Some specific scams addressed by Cox in the past include a phone-soliciting scam that claims to be collecting money for the troops in Iraq. Cox encourages people who want to send something to the troops to contact the Department of Defense or the United Service Organization (USO).

E-mail scams like the ones Bender has been fending off are also common place. One possible example is an e-mail in which the writer claims to be the widow of a sheik who was killed in the Gulf War. The widow says she has $10 million that she wants to donate to a church before she dies and the message includes the name and e-mail address of an attorney to contact for information.

That sounded familiar to Bender but not to Sinkule. Sinkule did recognize the format of another e-mail in which the writer claims to be the son of a murdered farmer in Zimbabwe who has $12 million they need to move out of the country by parking it in the recipient's bank account.

"This sounds like another variation on what is probably the longest running Internet fraud of all time," Sinkule said. "Never give your financial information to a stranger. It's really hard to say how many people have been taken in, but it's safe to say thousands."

There's is also a variation on the e-mail that, again, claims to come from Iraq. Any such e-mail should be forwarded to the Federal Trade Commission at uce@ftc.gov, Sinkule said.

Anyone with questions about any charity can call Cox's office at (404) 656-3920 for more information.