Common Laws is a general legal information column written by two local attorneys, David and Lyn Batty. Some people may find it hard to believe that two lawyers could coexist in one marriage, but marital disagreements can sometimes be defused by a well-placed evidentiary objection. Lyn is a solo practitioner and a former law librarian. David finds safety in numbers and practices with a firm in Charlotte. Common Laws appears on the second Monday of every month.
The holiday season is a time of giving. Many people opt to make donations to charitable organizations either in their own names, or in honor of those on their “nice” list. Unfortunately, all charitable organizations are not created equal, and some are far better stewards of your gifts than others. Worse yet, unscrupulous con artists prey on the annual holiday spirit of “good will toward men” to take advantage of otherwise wary consumers. Fall for one of these schemes and you will lose money or even find yourself the victim of identity theft. Restoring the damage caused by an identity stealing Scrooge is time-consuming, expensive, and may require the help of an attorney.
How do you avoid the charities that are merely pretty packaging while still supporting the many worthwhile and honest charities that exist? First, we suggest giving local. We’re big proponents of shopping local — giving local is an extension of that idea. You can easily verify how your money will be used at a local charity, like the Davidson Housing Coalition or Cornelius Animal Shelter, by walking in and talking to someone about how donations are used to promote affordable housing or the welfare of animals.
If you can’t visit yourself, you can use an online resource to help find out how much of your money actually goes to charitable programs and how much goes to overhead. Websites like www.charitynavigator.org and the Better Business Bureau’s www.give.org provide a lot of useful information free of charge. Take, for example, Heifer International, a charity we support. According to www.give.org, in 2010, Heifer International had a total income of $122,853,961 (of which $106,282,474 came from donations). What did Heifer International do with that money? The Better Business Bureau reports that 73 percent of Heifer International’s 2010 income went to funding programs, 20 percent was used for fundraising and 7 percent went to administrative expenses.
Although the Better Business Bureau recommends that charities spend no more that 35 percent of contributions on fundraising, other charity watchdog groups have higher standards. For example, Charity Navigator reserves its highest marks for charities that keep administrative expenses to 15 percent or less and fundraising expenses to 10 percent or less. Other websites like www.guidestar.org and www.charitywatch.org, provide basic information, including user reviews free of charge, but require a paid subscription or “suggested” donation for more detailed financial information.
Some charities come right to your front door to ask for money and you might wonder if those solicitations are legal. Davidson and Cornelius both have a “Peddlers and Hawkers” ordinance that generally prohibits door-to-door solicitations. Earlier this year, in response to a spate of aggressive magazine peddlers (maybe they were hawkers), Davidson sent an automated phone message reminding citizens that door-to-door magazine sales are prohibited. The Peddlers and Hawkers ordinance is not completely heartless, as it contains an exception for solicitations for “charitable, civic, religious or patriotic purposes” as long as the person making such solicitations has obtained a permit from the town and is not compensated for their work. Mooresville’s “Peddlers” ordinance has a further exception to permit children under the age of 18 to go door-to-door to solicit clients for seasonal yard work. The ordinance isn’t clear if that exception applies to offers to take down those pesky holiday lights after the season is over.
How do you avoid seasonal schemes? First be aware of known problems. The website www.mashable.com recently highlighted the “12 Scams of Christmas,” including phony iPad giveaways, bogus gift card offers and fake charitable fundraisers. Additionally, North Carolina’s ubiquitous Attorney General, Roy Cooper, is always on the lookout for scams. In particular, the North Carolina Department of Justice website strongly warns about responding to phone solicitations for charitable gifts because such a large portion of these funds are used to pay the telemarketer, even if the charity is legitimate. The NCDOJ suggests, “if you wish to support your local police, firefighters or schools, call to ask how you can donate directly to them.”
As any lawyer will tell you, there are few absolute rules that apply to every situation. However, when it comes to giving, there are two rules that you should follow — never respond to unsolicited emails, text messages and social networking posts asking you to donate, and never give your credit card number to an unknown telemarketer. If you think there is a problem, do your part to help out. Call the Attorney General’s Hotline, 1-877-5-NO-SCAM and report your concerns.
Happy Holidays and have a wonderful New Year.
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Disclaimer: We write this Common Laws column for informational purposes only. This column is not legal advice and it should not be relied on for making any decisions that may affect your rights. If you need legal advice regarding a specific situation you should consult a lawyer. No attorney-client relationship is created with any of our readers. Although we try to ensure that the information we provide is accurate, we disclaim any liability for inaccurate, incomplete or out-of-date information appearing in this column.