Originally Posted by RainyDay
See today's Irish Times for an interesting article on this issue.
Testing charities on your doorstep
Doorstep collections of goods are lucrative for charities. But how can you tell the bogus from the genuine, asks Shane Hegarty
The first time Philip Elliott collected bags of donated clothes, curtains and bed linen from doorsteps of a north Co Dublin estate a couple of months ago, he says that he was waved down by men in two vans. Three men got out of them, pierced his tyre, took the bags, and told him not to come back. This was their area.
Recently, after travelling from his home in Co Down to collect in Co Kildare, four men stopped him, pushed him up against his van and told him not to come here again. This was their area, they said, adding: "Don't come back to the South."
One gang, he says, consisted of Irish men, while the other was made up of non-nationals. In between, there were phone calls to his house, warning him against collecting door-to-door. But he continues to pick up unwanted goods for the Northern Irish-based Belarussian Chernobyl Children's Charity.
"I'm not easily scared, and these boys aren't doing this for nothing. There must be money in it for them, so there must be money to be made for the charities, and if we can make a hole in it, it will really help."
The world of the door-to-door charity is a lucrative one, and one in which you can't always be sure if the van taking the bag from your doorstep belongs to a legitimate charity or to a bogus one likely to sell the clothes on for profit - often to eastern Europe. Increasingly, there is an extra element: organised thieves who are taking the bags and selling the contents in car-boot sales.
What should be a feel-good aspect of modern life, an "everybody wins" situation in which householders get rid of unwanted goods and help the less well-off, has become a honeypot for fraudsters. It has become enough of a problem that at least one local authority has begun staking out housing estates in the hope of catching fraudulent collectors.
Charity leaflets have become a familiar sight in Irish letter boxes, a mix of the convincing and the suspect. The more carefully crafted fakes will contain authentic-looking charity numbers, phone numbers and a promise that the clothes will go to people in an underdeveloped country. Yet, there is no registration of Irish charities and the English numbers featured are not always traceable. The phone numbers given may either not connect or lead to pay-as-you-go mobiles with no message service, so that they cannot be tracked later.
The Irish Times recently attempted to verify a selection of leaflets dropped through letterboxes in north Co Dublin. Of eight - promising to send goods to, amongst others, African orphans, Eastern European children, and "under-developed countries, to improve their lives and welfare", only two could be confirmed as legitimate UK charities, although one of those did not return calls, and one as a genuine Irish charity. The rest of the phone numbers led only to dead ends, and one leaflet had no information other than a promise that the clothes or bed linen left out would go to Africa, and that the bags should be left out on Wednesday morning.
All that is not to say that those organisations collecting the bags are not legitimate - only that it wasn't possible to verify that they are.Given the number of leaflets in circulation, there are relatively few complaints made. The Garda press office says it is unaware of anyone being arrested for an offence specifically related to charity bags.
Yet charities such as Enable and Oxfam certainly are unhappy, as are legitimate charity shops. The cashing in by fraudsters on the doorstep collection market is having a direct impact on the amount of goods being received by genuine charities. In the UK, where the Office of Fair Trading has run a public awareness campaign, the Association of Charity Shops has estimated that such fraud costs its members £1 million (€1.5m) a year. There have also been suggestions of paramilitary involvement in scams in the North.
It has also flourished in the grey areas of legislation, which does not currently require charities to be registered - although there is a list of those which receive tax breaks. There has also been uncertainty over where these bags stand under waste-collection laws.
Only recently have local authorities' waste-enforcement offices decided that, although the items are supposedly going for re-use, once they are being "thrown out" they should be considered waste and that collectors should first apply for a permit to do so.
"Over the past 12 to 18 months, there has been an increase in door-to-door collections carried out by commercial rag merchants asking for unwanted clothing, etc," says Paul Dunphy of Oxfam. "There has been concern raised by the general public and in the media around the legitimacy of these commercial door-to-door collections and that the public are being given the impression that the money raised from the sale of the stock collected by these organisations goes to charity when in many instances it does not." This has not dissuaded the charity from continuing door-to-door collections, as it is currently engaged in its Clear ur Gear campaign.
"We would advise the public if they want to be sure that their donation of stock is benefiting a charity they should either take it to their local Oxfam shop, other charity shop or only give it to those charities that carry out door-to-door collections and whose collection material bears the Irish Charity Shop Association logo. The logo will read Irish Charity Shops Association and will include a picture of a clothes hanger," advises Dunphy.
Attitudes on the problem vary between local authorities, but Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council has become particularly active in cracking down on bogus waste collectors, a category in which it includes charity scams. It has even begun to stake out areas in which it knows collections are due to take place, although no one has yet been apprehended. However, its environment department has noticed an increase in the number of bags being dumped, with anecdotal evidence of systematic stealing of bags from doorsteps.
Given that leaflets name the time at which people should leave their goods on the doorstep, and give two or three days notice, it makes things very easy for an enterprising thief.
"The evidence points to this being a more widespread problem than we had thought," says Aidan Conroy of Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council's waste enforcement office. "Without having any firm evidence yet to back this up, it would seem that much of it is destined for the car-boot sale market."
Part of the problem is that it remains difficult to nail down swindlers. If waste is found in a charity bag, it may have been stolen, illegally dumped or might have been left out by a householder unaware that the "charity" is a fake. Conroy says that the county council is considering setting up an information phone line so people can double-check the veracity of any leaflet claiming to represent a charity. "It would be to educate people, and not some form of entrapment."
As for Philip Elliott, he says that he has seen enough around the housing estates to convince him that this is a good way of raising funds for the Belarussian Chernobyl Children's Charity, and will not be deterred. It is a profitable business, and he believes that benefits still outweigh the difficulties. At the moment, he collects with the assistance of an independent company that has the required permit, but insists that he would pick up every bag himself if necessary.
"We've set a target of raising money," he adds "and in the long term this is an easy way of doing it."