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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state charity regulators across the country have embarked on a project called "Operation False Alarm" to crack down on frauds that involve fundraising for fire, police and other public safety organizations. Their targets are professional fund-raisers who misrepresent their ties to fire-rescue or police organizations and use deceptive practices to con the public into giving money to a non-existent or questionable charity. And, even when legitimate, there have been too many cases in which little or no money reached the organization it was supposed to help.
Public fundraising to support volunteer fire departments, rescue squads and career firefighters' organizations has a long tradition in the fire-rescue service and is a perfectly acceptable activity. It has produced millions of dollars to buy apparatus and equipment, maintain volunteer companies and provided money for benevolent groups that benefit career firefighters. But, it also is an activity that lends itself to scams by unscrupulous con artists and it requires close supervision by fire-rescue organizations.
In this era of taxpayer revolts and tight budgets, public fundraising has become more important to many departments. Some that were totally dependent on tax money have reluctantly turned to fundraising drives to make up for drastic budget cuts. Unfortunately, with no previous experience in this type of activity, they can become victims of the fundraising con men. When that happens, the end result is not much money, tarnished reputations and a reluctance on the part of the public to contribute to legitimate charitable causes.
The problem is widespread and serious enough for the FTC to launch "Operation False Alarm," which also includes attorneys general and charity regulators in every state. They already have brought 57 law enforcement or regulatory actions against fundraisers who engaged in illegal or deceptive practices. Along with legal action, the FTC, the National Associa-tion of Attorneys General and the Better Business Bureaus have teamed up in an educational campaign to warn the public of "badge related" fraud. They also want to help fire and police organizations avoid being victimized by crooked fundraisers.
The worst offenders are the criminals who used telephone solicitations and direct mail to raise money for phony charities that have no connection with any police or fire-rescue organization. Another scam is to con small businesses into buying ads in a magazine or program that doesn't exist or, when published, is nothing but advertising with no editorial content of any kind. It is important for fire departments and benevolent organizations to be alert to this type of fraud taking place in their area so that people can be warned not to contribute when they inquire about the legitimacy of a fundraising campaign.
Nationwide, the police seem to be most vulnerable to con games carried out in their name and most of the cases presented at a Washington press conference involved police organizations. However, the fire-rescue service has its share of the problem. Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, warned: "Badge-fraud schemes betray the public trust...Legitimate fundraising efforts by local police, firefighters and other community service organizations suffer as a result."
Perhaps of greatest concern to fire organizations are professional fundraisers who are hired to put on a fundraising drive and end up with most of the money. According to the FTC, they often keep 80% or more and generate bad feelings in the community because of their high-pressure tactics. If your department or organization is going to get involved with a professional fundraiser, it is essential to investigate with others who have used the same service to learn from their experience. Also contact local and state regulators and the Better Business Bureau to determine if any complaints have been filed.