CHARLESTON - State officials in Ohio and West Virginia are offering suggestions and cautions for donations and shopping for the holidays.
The holidays combined with the impact of Hurricane Sandy make a perfect storm for fraudulent organizations to take advantage of generous West Virginians, according to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
"There are thousands of people, some right here in our state, who will struggle to provide a happy holiday for their family because of the damage done by Hurricane Sandy," Tennant said. "My concern is that people who are running fraudulent organizations will call West Virginians and try to get them to donate money by making them feel like they have to donate money."
Information available at the agency's website can help citizens protect themselves, she said.
There are 3,248 charitable organizations registered with the secretary of state. The online database is at www.wvsos.com and clicking on the "Wise Charitable Giving" link at the top of the page.
The online database will show the charity's total contribution, the money contributed by West Virginians, and how the charity disbursed their funds, and how much of the funds were disbursed in West Virginia.
"The best thing you can do if you're contacted by a charity you think isn't legitimate, is to ask as many questions as you can. Ask where the charity is located, where the money will be going, and if they could send you literature. The legitimate charities will welcome all of those questions because they have nothing to hide," Tennant said.
Suspicions of an illegitimate agency can be addressed by calling the secretary of state's office at (304) 558-6000 or 1-866-767-8683."
The Secretary of State's Guide to Wise 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.
Not all charities are found on the 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. Only charities that take in more than $25,000 in a calendar year must register with the secretary of state unless the charity uses a professional fundraising counsel or solicitor.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine also warns of holiday scammers.
"This is an exciting and joyful time of year," DeWine said. "But keeping an eye out for fraudsters and gimmicks, and clearly understanding the terms of a purchase will go a long way toward making sure the holidays are safe and hassle free."
Whether it's shopping in person or online, on "Black Friday" or "Cyber Monday," DeWine offered the following tips:
* If you receive gift cards, use them in a timely fashion. Most are required to last five years, but fees may come into play and lower the value of the gift card. If the business closes its doors, the value of its gift cards may be lost.
* Making a major purchase? Check return policies, restocking fees, and warranty agreements. Retain all records associated with the purchase.
* When shopping, carry only the credit cards or cash needed on that trip. Keep a copy of accounts and account numbers in a secure place so financial institutions can be contacted quickly in the event cards are lost or stolen.
* If purchasing online, check that the website is legitimate and secure. Look for an "s" in the first letters of a site's web address: https. And make sure your computer antivirus and other security software is up to date.
* Do not pay attention to texts you might receive on your cell phone that claim you have won a major prize or gift card, even if they appear to be from an established company. Call the company directly if you have questions.
* Check that your financial statements match with purchases you've made. If discrepancies are found, contact the financial institution immediately.
* Know all the terms of a layaway plan. If you fall behind in payments, you could lose the item and the money you've put into it.
* In Ohio, you generally have three business days to cancel certain kinds of prepaid entertainment contracts, including gym memberships, dance studios, and dating agencies.
"By following these guidelines, and remembering that if something sounds too good to be true it probably is, consumers can go a long way toward keeping the holidays happy," DeWine said.