CHARLESTON - In the devastating wake of Hurricane Sandy, state and local officials want to make sure even more people aren't victimized by scammers.
Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant warned West Virginia citizens of fraudulent charities who may try to solicit donations following Hurricane Sandy.
While there have been no reports of charity scams in West Virginia following the storm, Tennant said citizens need to know how to protect themselves.
In Parkersburg, Sgt. Greg Nangle with the Parkersburg Police Department said no calls have been received about possible charity scams, but he urged residents to be careful. For people wanting to provide support to those in need, he recommended staying with charitable organizations they are familiar with, or to do careful research if considering donations to someone they may not recognize.
Charities licensed to solicit donations from West Virginians are listed on a searchable database maintained by the Secretary of State's Office. Tennant urged citizens to ask questions if contacted by phone - questions like if the charity is licensed to solicit donations by the Secretary of State's Office and how the donation is going to be used.
"There are so many citizens watching news coverage of Hurricane Sandy and wondering how they can help," she said. "We are very caring people, and unfortunately there are people out there who prey on that. If you are contacted by someone over the phone who pressures you into giving or makes you feel guilty if you don't want to donate, or if they don't answer the questions you ask, it's a red flag that they may not be legitimate."
The database to search for charities is online at apps.sos.wv.gov/business/charities/index.aspx.
Not all charities are found on the Secretary of State's database. The Red Cross, for example, is monitored on the federal level. The Salvation Army is not listed on the charities database because as a religious organization, it is exempt and not required to be registered.
The Secretary of State's Guide to Charitable Giving has several tips to help citizens protect themselves from fraudulent charities:
* Know your charity: Never give to a charity that you know nothing about and who refuses to answer questions about where your money will go.
* Don't yield to pressure: Don't feel as though you must donate immediately.
* Demand identification: Ask for identification from both the solicitor and the charity. If the solicitor refuses, hang up immediately.
* Beware the name game: Be wary of crooked charities that have a name similar to a well-respected charity.
* Be prudent when giving your credit card number: Write a check and use the charity's full name. That way you have a record of the contribution and exactly where your money went.
* When in doubt, do research: Check the Secretary of State's searchable database.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, along with the FBI and the National Center for Disaster Fraud, also want to remind the public there is a potential for disaster fraud in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Suspected fraudulent activity pertaining to relief efforts associated with Hurricane Sandy should be reported to the toll-free NCDF hotline at 866-720-5721. The hotline is staffed by a live operator 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the purpose of reporting suspected scams being perpetrated by criminals in the aftermath of disasters.
"When disaster strikes, West Virginians are usually the first to open up their pocketbooks and lend a helping hand," Goodwin said. "But be careful: there are criminals who will take advantage of that generosity. It's a good idea to stick with charities you know and trust. If a stranger calls and asks you for money, do your homework before donating. And if you suspect someone is up to no good, call the authorities."
NCDF was originally established in 2005 by the Department of Justice to investigate, prosecute and deter fraud associated with federal disaster relief programs following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Its mission has expanded to include suspected fraud related to any natural or man-made disaster. More than 20 federal agencies - including the Justice Department's Criminal Division, U.S. Attorneys' Offices, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General and the FBI - participate in the NCDF, allowing the center to act as a centralized clearinghouse of information related to disaster relief fraud.
Additional tips from the NCDF include:
* Do not respond to any unsolicited (spam) incoming emails, including by clicking links contained within those messages, because they may contain computer viruses.
* Be cautious of individuals representing themselves as victims or officials asking for donations via email or social networking sites.
* Be cautious of emails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files, because those files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders.