FEMA, charities ask donors to give wisely, avoid scams

Red Cross volunteers stationed at the Albert Leonard

Red Cross volunteers stationed at the Albert Leonard Middle School in New Rochelle, which has been turned into a shelter for those in need after the damage from Hurricane Sandy. (Oct. 30, 2012) (Credit: Faye Murman)

Good intentions aren’t always enough. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, federal and charitable organizations are reminding Hudson Valley residents who want to donate goods and services to make sure they are doing so wisely — and not getting scammed in the process.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.org) suggests donating cash, calling it the most “effective” and “efficient” donation possible. In lieu of specific donated items that may or may not be in demand, FEMA says money allows “voluntary organizations to fund response and recovery efforts, obtain goods and services locally, and provide direct financial assistance to disaster survivors to meet their own needs.”

Rosemarie Valdez, an American Red Cross volunteer working out of New York City this week, expressed the same sentiment to Newsday Westchester. “In terms of disasters, what we really need from people is money, because that’s the fastest way to help the families in need,” she said.


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FEMA also encourages donors to give to “a recognized disaster relief organization,” citing the National Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster website (www.nvoad.org) and National Donations Management Network (www.aidmatrixnetwork.org) as trusted resources for reputable charities. Among the charities listed on both sites are American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity International and Save the Children.

The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Bureau (www.give.org); the New York-based Foundation Center (foundationcenter.org) and Charity Navigator (www.CharityNavigator.org) also are considered trusted resources for donation services.

Authorities warn of the likelihood of Sandy-related fraud reaching far beyond the storm zone — from bogus charities seeking donations, to home-repair scams and sales of flood-damaged vehicles. State attorneys general, business and consumer groups and the Justice Department are among those cautioning consumers to be wary as requests for donations start arriving via email, text message, telephone and Twitter.

"Fraud is an unfortunate reality in post-disaster environments," said Joe Wehrle, president of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit group that deals with vehicle sales and repairs fraud. "As the initial recovery from Hurricane Sandy begins, there are people right now who are planning to converge on the affected areas in order to scam disaster victims out of their money."

Be wary of callers who push aggressively for an immediate donation and/or are unable to answer charity-related questions, and anyone who asks for cash to be mailed.

Valdez acknowledged that imposters posing as the Red Cross and other charities often mislead victims into sending their money to fraudulent websites, phone numbers and mailing addresses.

“We encourage the public to only use the ways that we are telling them to donate,” said Valdez, who emphasized that text-messages to 90999 (for an automatic $10 donation), calls to 1-800-REDCROSS and visits to www.redcross.org are the recommended ways to donate to that cause.

On the Web, nearly 1,100 Internet addresses related to Sandy have been registered since last Friday, according to the Internet domain research site DomainTools. Some sites feature a "donate" button, but fraudulent sites will never give that cash to relief funds or will simply retain a credit card number for use later.

For people who prefer to donate items other than cash, FEMA wants donors to call charities ahead of time to find out what’s needed, instead of just dropping off items without checking first. Even well-intended donations can cause a lag in efficiency.

“Unsolicited donated goods such as used clothing, miscellaneous household items and mixed or perishable foodstuffs require helping agencies to redirect valuable resources away from providing services to sort, package, transport, warehouse and distribute items that may not meet the needs of disaster survivors,” according to the FEMA website.

Valdez agreed, adding that even the most-needed items that are donated arrive in bulk to expedite the delivery process.

The NVOAD website conveys a similar message: “Clothing, household items and food are best provided by well-funded voluntary agencies and not through the expensive process of collecting, sorting, packaging, transporting, receiving, sorting and distributing of goods.”

Volunteering time also speeds the recovery effort. In addition to the NVOAD, FEMA recommends looking into volunteering opportunities through United We Serve (www.serve.gov), Citizens Corps (www.citizencorps.gov), Help in Disaster (www.helpindisaster.org) and Network for Good (www.networkforgood.org).

Since Hurricane Sandy’s impact, Red Cross volunteers have been doing their part to help in New York State. On Thursday night, an estimated 3,100 people slept in 38 of its New York shelters, according to Valdez.

“We have mobilized more than 1,100 trained disaster workers to provide help in New York,” Valdez said. “We have provided more than 215,000 meals and snacks [as of Friday afternoon]. We’ve provided more than 2,000 health contacts.”

At Albert Leonard Middle School in New Rochelle, for example, Red Cross volunteers offered local residents everything from medical attention to pickup games of basketball.

More volunteers, she said, are always welcome. Those who want to do so can call the New York chapter of the Red Cross at 1-877-REDCROSS.

“We know that we’re going to be working on this [Sandy aftermath] for quite some time,” Valdez said. “We are really looking for people who just want to help out.”

With AP

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