Fake fundraising: how do you know if a charity is legitimate?

Beware strangers tugging on your heart strings
Beware strangers tugging on your heart strings

A Calgary woman was recently charged with fraud over $5,000 after she claimed she had cancer and needed money for treatment.

After a tip, investigators looked into her medical records and discovered she was not cancer-ridden and had never actually been diagnosed with the deadly disease. A total of $16,000 was raised through a GoFundMe page.

“She even went to extremes to shave her head and cut her skin and call them cancer bumps. (She took) time off work for these fake surgeries that didn’t actually happen so it was kind of extreme measure to make us all believe that she was actually ill,” a woman who worked with her to raise the money told CTV.

Images of sick people always elicit sympathy from well-meaning Canadians but how can you be sure that someone or some organization is truly worthy of receiving your charitable donation?

According to Smartgiving.ca, a web site run by law firm Blumberg Segal LLP, a common scheme is for someone who says he or she is from a “nice-sounding organization that supports police, firefighters, kids with cancer or some other nice-sounding endeavour,” and then that person attempts to rope you into giving them cash.

But often “the person making this unsolicited call may be a third-party and may be taking up to 95 per cent of the funds by way of commission or otherwise. It is best to just say no and donate to a charity that you are knowledgeable about and can verify the work that it is doing,” according to its web site.

These type of scam artists tend to “tug at your heart strings, especially pleas involving current events,” warns the RCMP, who advise people to do their homework to make sure the charity is legitimate.

And it warns, don’t be fooled by a common trick whereby the bad guys make a small change to the charity’s title.

“Some phony charities use names that closely resemble those of respected, legitimate organizations. If you notice a small difference from the name of the charity you intend to deal with, call the organization to check it out,” according to the RCMP web site.

Another type of deception is a charity tax-shelter scheme, whereby less-than legitimate charities promise a tax credit that is for more money than what you donated.

But the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) frowns mightily on this type of deception.

CRA recently told Global News that $190 million in fines had been levied over the past few years after it discovered the trickery was happening.

“Though the specifics of the scheme vary, the idea behind the scam is that people can make a charitable donation and receive a tax break equal to or larger than their charitable gift,” according to a Global News article.

It seems the charity market is ripe for these types of efforts: Canadians doled out $8.9 billion in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. Charitable giving is a huge business, and if you want to confirm that a charity is real, the Canadian government has a list available.

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