Seniors May Be Targeted by Fake Charities

This is the time of year when many of us think about the joys of giving—not only gifts to family and friends, but also contributions to charities that serve those in need. More than half of all charitable giving takes place during the last three months of the year. This includes giving by seniors, who often donate to charities at this time. Our later years are a time when many of us feel increased motivation to make a difference in this way.

However, not all charities are created equal. Unfortunately, disreputable organizations try to take advantage of our giving spirit to siphon off donations that are not used as we would want. These fraudsters use TV infomercial pitchmen, an army of paid telemarketers, or door-to-door solicitors, all trained to play on the sympathies of potential donors. They mislead donors by claiming to collect funds for disease research, for people in need, and for other good causes, when in reality only a fraction—if that—of the donations go to a legitimate cause. Instead, the monies finance a lavish lifestyle for the crooks. For example, a bogus "Breast Cancer Education Society" might filter all donations into the telemarketer's pocket. The "education" mission they claim? Each solicitation letter comes with a photocopied sheet of paper with information on how to perform a breast self-exam.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns us that crooks often take advantage of publicity about a natural disaster or current news event. For example, as this newsletter is sent out, the FTC website's home page is focusing on helping Americans avoid scammers who already have created fake charities claiming to collect money for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The FTC also reports an epidemic of scammers pretending to collect money for fallen firefighters, police officers or veterans. The latter have become so prevalent that the FTC recently created Operation False Charity to crack down on these "badge charities."

Seniors can be vulnerable to heart-rending pitchmen on infomercials … persistent telephone callers that play on their sympathies … or door-to-door solicitors who won't take no for an answer. Scammers may sell the names and phone numbers of those who donate—and once a senior gives the first time, the vultures descend! Some phony charities are a front to steal a person's sensitive personal data, such as Social Security number and credit card information.

What can you do if you suspect a senior loved one has been taken in by scammers? This can be a delicate conversation. The senior may have developed an emotional attachment to a particular organization. He or she may have been "groomed" by a phone caller, who pretends to be a friend or someone benefitting from your loved one’s donations. Your loved one may feel embarrassed to have been taken in. People with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia are especially vulnerable—indeed, eldercare attorneys report that being victimized in this way is often the trigger event motivating families to put a power of attorney or guardianship into place.

One good strategy for having this conversation without causing your loved one to feel hurt or defensive is to treat it as a collaborative, educational moment rather than a stern lecture. Most seniors have a strong sense of justice. Explain that people of every age should educate themselves about fake charities—and report them. Here are some things to know:

  1. Most states require charities to be registered and to file an annual report showing how they use donations. Call or visit the website of your state attorney general's Consumer Protection Division to check out a particular charity. If it is a legitimate organization, it should be on the list of approved charities. Many states also feature resources specifically geared for older adults. See the end of this article for more good places to check them out.
  2. Beware of "sound-alikes." Just because the organization's name sounds good doesn't mean it is on the level. Fly-by-night crooks will throw together intentionally deceptive names that sound official. For example, the legitimate and worthwhile organization Operation Homefront provides assistance to the families of service members and wounded soldiers. To take advantage of people who would help these deserving soldier families, a phony organization used the title "Operation Home Front" to collect money that went into the scammers' pockets.
  3. That "volunteer" who contacts you may not be. The solicitor who engages you on the phone or shows up on your front doorstep may be a professional fundraiser, not a volunteer or someone interested in the charity. Charity scammers create teams of door-to-door solicitors and "boiler rooms" of phone banks, who claim to be survivors of a particular health condition or advocates for a particular cause. In fact, these are paid sales staff who have received training on how to seal the deal. They can seem intimidating. It is not bad manners to hang up on these callers, or to quickly terminate a conversation at the door.
  4. Phony charities often put on the pressure to donate right away. According to the Better Business Bureau, "Giving on the spot is never necessary, no matter how hard a telemarketer or door-to-door solicitor pushes it. The charity that needs your money today will welcome it just as much tomorrow."
  5. Set up a personal giving plan for the year and stick to it. If you are approached by a solicitor, request that they leave the information for you to examine. Then check out the organization before putting them on your list.

Helping others is a powerful human urge and provides an important sense of purpose for older adults. Empowering your loved ones to make educated choices provides a valuable self-esteem boost and helps pull the rug out from under crooks who would take advantage of our impulse to help others to fill their own bank accounts with money that could go to a truly good cause.

Where to Research a Charity You Are Considering

The Federal Trade Commission offers information on avoiding scams and a list of valid charity evaluation resources.

For local charities, check your state attorney general's website. Visit the National Association of Attorneys General for a link to AG offices in each state.

The Better Business Bureau sponsors the Wise Giving Alliance. Visit the Alliance’s search page and enter a charity type to find those that have met the BBB’s standards; while you are there, notice the long list that have not!

Charity Navigator, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping consumers identify reputable charities, offers a searchable online "Charity Search" directory. The results include valuable donor advisories where consumers can view legal proceedings and complaints lodged against organizations, as well as a list of alternate, highly rated charities.


Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.