Beware Charity Fraud

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently sent me some information about some popular charity frauds going around lately.

I personally never respond to a solicitation. It could’ve come in the mail, through a phone call, or an email; I ignore them all. It’s not because I’m a heartless person and it’s not because I don’t trust the solicitation, it’s that I prefer to go directly to the charity. I don’t want to write a personal check and put it in the mail. I don’t want to give any sensitive information across the phone and I certainly don’t trust email, with all the scams and phishing attempts surrounding those. I know the charities we like to support and we generally go directly to their websites to donate.

However, given the tumble the stock market had over the last year, a lot of charities are turning to solicitations to get more donations because their trusts and endowments are hurting. This has opened up an opportunity for scammers and thieves, so the FTC has offered up some good information to help you combat that.

If you recently received a phone call from a “charity” and are considering donating money, I recommend you read the FTC’s Charity Fraud website for tips on how you can protect yourself and the people you’re helping. When you give money to a scammer, it only empowers them to keep on ripping people off. As more people get burned, they start avoiding charities and charities that support the people the scammer said he or she was collecting for. In the end, it’s the people you intended to help that get hurt the most.

I also wanted to spotlight two particularly poignant scams going on right now and how to protect them. The first involves scammers pretending to collect donations to support the troops, as in vets, active duty, or their families. The second is the result of an enforcement sweep of scammers that pretended to collect donations for police, firefighters, and veterans.

It’s great to help those who are in need, but not if the money is going into the pocket of a scammer.

 Your Take 

Your Take: Do You Volunteer?

In these difficult economic times, charitable organizations and philanthropies have seen a dip in charitable giving. It’s unfortunate but understandable; if you have to decide between rent and supporting a charity, chances are rent will win out.

If you can’t donate money, consider donating your time. I started volunteering at Meals on Wheels in Howard County last week and it’s been a blast so far. The task is pretty simple, the work needs to be done, and my donation of time costs me very little and saves them money. All I’m doing is helping pack a two hundred or so meals once a week (one lunch, one dinner).

The first day consisted of:

  • Opening up cans of fruit cocktail and scooping about three ounces of it into little containers.
  • Packing two juices, a milk, an apple, turkey sandwich, mayo, and a tea bag into brown paper bags.
  • Heating up some kosher soups in the microwave.
  • Spooning broccoli into a little plastic lunch tray, that already had pasta and italian sausage, and handing it off to someone else to seal.

Day two? It was St. Paddy’s day so the cold meal was roast beef and the hot meal was corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes. We were done in two hours flat.

And during that entire mechanical process, I chatted with the three other volunteers about all sorts of stuff. We even talked about Twitter! They knew what it was, they just didn’t get why it was popular… how about that?

Do you volunteer anywhere and, if so, where? What’s the work like? If you don’t and have a few hours to spare, please give it some consideration because it’s a lot of fun, you get to meet some great people, and you get to do some good without spending a dime.

 Personal Finance 

Your Take: Which Local Charities Do You Support?

Maryland Food BankA couple weeks ago I wrote a controversial Devil’s Advocate post – Don’t Donate Money to Charity. In that post, I argued four reasons why you shouldn’t donate to charity and some of you really let me have it (rightfully so!). I expected it, and I appreciate the honesty, because I don’t believe those four reasons are good reasons not to donate. Every year, my wife and I support several charities and the good work they do (we have the increase in mail to prove it!); while we’re aware of what to look out for when supporting an organization, we don’t let it handcuff us into inaction – sounds like many of you feel the same way.

The banter was all over the map but one topic we discussed was the effectiveness of national charitable organizations versus local charitable organizations. Saladdin recommended that I run a post where we can all recommend the talk about the local charities we support. For us financially, it’s the Maryland Food Bank. They’re a local food bank that runs several programs and distribute a staggering 14 million pounds of food each year through five programs – Fresh Foods for Families, Second Helping, Harvest for the Hungry, Bread On the Water, and Kids Cafe.

Please share your favorite local charity, some of the things they do, and next Friday I’ll randomly select one charity to donate $100 to. The only requirement is that it must be a 501(c)(3) charity.


Deducting Miles for Charitable Volunteering

Starting next week I’ll be volunteering every Tuesday morning in the kitchen at the local Howard County Meals on Wheels facility. It’s less than five miles away one-way but I still wanted to research how to claim the driving mileage on my taxes to reduce my tax burden as much as possible. At ten miles a week and 52 weeks, we’re only looking at 520 miles for the entire year. The deduction for 2008 was $0.14 a mile (IRS standard mileage rates), so we’re only talking a $72.80 deduction… but every bit helps!

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 Devil's Advocate 

Don’t Donate Money To Charity

Devils Advocate Logo
This is a Devil's Advocate post.

Donation BoxThis Devil’s Advocate post will cover something that’s bound to elicit a lot of discussion – here are four reasons why you shouldn’t donate money to charity. That’s right, you read that correctly, I have four reasons why donating your hard earned money to a charity is a bad idea and chances are there is at least one reason here that you didn’t even consider. If there was ever a Devil’s Advocate post to end all Devil’s Advocate posts (don’t worry, it’s not the last one), this would probably be one of them!

Americans are one of the most charitable groups in the world, having donating $306 billion in 2007 according to the Philanthropy Journal, an increase of 3.9% over the year before. While the donation amounts in 2008, a period of economic uncertainty, are not yet known, chances are Americans will still be sending hundreds of billions to philanthropic organizations… so in the face of that, I present to you four reasons why you shouldn’t donate money to charity.

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How to Value Your Clothing Donation

Goodwill Collection BoxEvery year, my wife and I go through all of our clothes and pick out the stuff that we haven’t worn in the last year. You know what these are, the polo shirt that has been in the back of the closet since two years ago, the button down that no longer feels right, the sweater that’s ugly but old enough that your aunt forgot she gave it to you… we throw all that stuff into boxes or bags and send them over to our local Goodwill for a sweet sweet tax deduction. We’ve only been able to do this the last three years, since buying a house, because you can only deduct those donations if you itemize your taxes. I think philanthropic donations should be deductible even if you itemize but those are the rules.

Donating “stuff,” be it your car, your clothes, or something else, was one of the ten year end tax saving tips and you still have time to do it. Even if you don’t itemize, consider doing it just so you can clear yourself of some clutter. Your donations let Goodwill or the Salvation Army earn extra money to fund their operations and it provides affordable items for purchase from their customers.

The trickiest part about the entire process is how do you assign a value to the items you’re donating? Chances are the IRS will never come knocking on your door and asking how you valued your clothing because it’s simply not going to be a lot of money involved. However, this doesn’t mean that you can shirk on documenting because if they do show up and you don’t have records, they may invalidate the donation and you could find yourself paying interest and fees!

How To Donate & Document Donated Clothes

  • Gather up everything and create a list of items: Simply create a list of all your items and include as much information as possible. Anything you want to donate has to be in “good” condition or better. You can put the brand and type of clothing (Stafford button down, American Eagle polo, Gap jeans, Ann Taylor sweater), its condition, the estimated purchase price and date (if you can remember), and the fair market value at the time of donation. The more information you have down, the better. If you think anything you list sounds unbelievable, take a picture (the IRS may not believe you’re donating a $200 suit in good condition, for example)
  • Rememebr to get a receipt: Whenever we go to the nearby Salvation Army, we just give the bag(s) to the person working the bench, he or she tosses it in a huge pile, and then they hand us a pre-signed blank receipt. Some places won’t give you a receipt for small donations but I would always get one and fill it out with as much information as can fit, then just refer to another page. Some people recommend putting something vague (because you have better records) but I put a listing (3 shirts, 2 pants, loafers, etc) of actual items and then refer to another document with specifics.
  • Worth more than $500? If you donate more than $500 of clothing, then you’ll need to fill out Section A of Form 8283 Non Cash Charitable Contributions. Don’t let the form scare you, you won’t need an appraisal unless you donate more than $5,000 – which is a lot of used clothing.
  • Claiming the deduction: Last step is to remember to claim the deduction on your tax return! You’ll always list it on Schedule A of the 1040 but if you do your taxes with a software product (highly recommended), they’ll just ask you as you fill it out. They may even offer guidance on valuation.

Determining Clothing Fair Market Value

And… here’s the tricky part. By definition, the fair market value is the reasonable price that a regular person would pay for that item. Imagine if you saw that item at a garage sale or a used goods market, how much would you pay for it? That’s the fair market value… you see how ambiguous it is?

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to help you determine how much your stuff is worth. The Salvation Army has a valuation guide for everything from clothing to appliances, children’s items to furniture. It’s pretty comprehensive and includes a range so you can decide, based on condition, how much it’s worth. Goodwill has a similar valuation guide in PDF form.

Finally, if you’re an IRS publication junkie, you can always check out Publication 561, Determining the Value of Donated Property, and Publication 526, Charitable Contributions, for more specifics, scenarios, and other useful tidbits boringly explained.

However you value your old stuff, remember that donating it in the first place is more important than not donating because you aren’t sure how to handle the deduction. In the end, it won’t save you a ton of money regardless and it’ll make life easier for some charities and perhaps some individuals.

(Photo: roadsidepictures)

 Personal Finance 

My Favorite Charities

NCN asked for everyone to name their favorite charity and it was difficult to choose only one so I’m going to list all the ones I support on any significant level.

Make A Wish Foundation – I’d known about them before my friend Scott started doing his Charitable Ghent Bar Tours down in Norfolk, VA and always thought their mission was very admirable. My friend Scott has been running a bar tour for a few years that has raised a significant amount for the Make A Wish Foundation and I was happy to play a small part in that. This year marks the first year in which they’ll be doing a pub crawl in downtown Norfolk, this time for benefit of the ALS Association.

American Cancer Society – I don’t really have much I can say about this other than I support the work that they do and hope that everyone recognizes that cancer is a disease that affects everyone. Under the simple premise that cancer develops after a cell replication/mutation goes horribly wrong, you can see how no one is safe unless we figure out a cure for this.

There are a few more that we support as well but those I believe are the big two. If you’re looking for a charity to support, Charity Navigator is a great place to compare them.


One Laptop Per Child Offer

Between November 12th and November 26th, the One Laptop Per Child is running a Buy One Get One program in the US and Canada. Buy one laptop at $399 (+$24.95 shipping) and not only will you get one of these slick little meanie greenies but you’ll also be sending one to a child in a developing nation. Of the $399, $200 will be tax-deductible so it’s really less than $399. To make the whole deal even sweeter, T-Mobile will give all U.S. donors a year’s complimentary access to their HotSpots (worth about $350/yr according to T-Mobile). [full terms & conditions of B1G1 program]

Let me back it up a little bit for those unfamiliar with the OLPC and the XO Laptop. Back in 2002, MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte went on a mission to produce the $100 laptop. The purpose was to provide cheap technology to the children of developing nations in an effort to raise them up. The XO laptop was created out of that vision and while not quite $100, it’s very close ($200!). For more about the OLPC, you can visit

The specs on this little laptop are pretty good for a $200 unit and I signed up to get one (and give one), if only to say I was involved in something that I think is very noble. While it’s not towards curing cancer or granting a wish, it’s certainly going to change people’s lives and I hope this thing explodes. Will you help?

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