Ferguson & Wyman warn consumers about storefront solicitor scams
Issued: September 16, 2013
OLYMPIA...Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Secretary of State Kim Wyman are teaming up to warn consumers about a troubling practice by some individuals who solicit donations near retail stores on behalf of charities.
The Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General's Office (AGO) and the Office of Secretary of State's (OSOS) Charities Program are aware of potentially illegal actions taken by these solicitors.
Increasingly, the solicitors are asking for charity donations outside of retail stores. The solicitors often set up a table at a store entrance or exit. They ask for small cash, check, debit or credit card donations. In most instances, the solicitors will offer small trinkets for a donation. They state that donations will go toward various charitable purposes, such as helping sick or disabled children, animals, battered women, or to support well-known charitable organizations.
The AGO Consumer Protection Division and the OSOS Charities Program have reason to believe the solicitors personally pocket most of the money instead of giving it to the intended charity.
"Unfortunately, not all solicitors are reputable," said Ferguson. "Check before giving to a charity so you can confirm your money is going to help a good cause, not line someone's wallet."
"These solicitors are taking money away from legitimate charities, so we want citizens and retailers to be aware of this emerging problem and avoid being scammed," Wyman said.
Many of these practices violate the Charitable Solicitations Act (RCW 19.09) and the state's Consumer Protection Act (RCW 19.86). The Attorney General's Office has civil enforcement authority of both laws.
Wyman says charities need to register with the Charities Program, with some exceptions. However, she cautions that a registration with the Charities Program is not an endorsement of the solicitor, or his or her charity, nor is it an assurance that the solicitor is complying with the law.
"People can't assume that every charity registered with our program operates legally or in good faith. When we discover illegal activity, we quickly coordinate with the Attorney General's Office so they can try to put a stop to it," Wyman said.
"A key priority for the Attorney General's Office is to prevent consumers from being scammed," said Ferguson.
Ferguson and Wyman provided these tips to people who might encounter store-front solicitors:
- Don't give in to pressure. Tell the solicitor you want to take time to make your decision.
- Ask for written material about the charity to take home and research to see if their donations help other charities as they claim.
- Ask the solicitor if he or she is registered with the Office of Secretary of State.
- Don't be fooled by a name. Some use similar sounding names that closely resemble respected, well-established charities.
Since September 2011, the AGO has investigated and filed a lawsuit against one such solicitor for these types of violations. (Here is the link to the complaint filed earlier this year by the state against Joseph W. Searles and Rena R. Searles: http://1.usa.gov/13tu0XY. Here is the link to the consent decree for that case: http://1.usa.gov/13tu89V.) However, its Consumer Protection Division continues to see new charities and no slowing in the amount of troubling solicitations.
Ferguson and Wyman recently sent a jointly signed letter to Washington retailers alerting them to the questionable solicitations and asking retailers to help by alerting the AGO's Consumer Protection Division of any suspicious solicitation activity near their stores.
The Secretary of State's Charities Program has a Give Wisely webpage that includes several tips, a video, a checklist for use with telephone solicitors and a brochure on giving wisely so donors have the knowledge to make informed decisions when giving money.
Visit the Consumer Protection Division website here: http://www.atg.wa.gov/SafeguardingConsumers.aspx#.UfrVKm1enaI. The Charities Program website can be found here: http://www.sos.wa.gov/charities/.
For more information about questionable solicitors who request donations in front of retail stores, contact the Attorney General's Office.