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Woman worries about charity scams

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mary Coyne, an area real estate agent, has received dozens of letters in recent weeks asking for contributions to help cancer victims, children and veterans. She worries they may be a scam.

The "Children's Cancer Dream Network" mailed Coyne a typical solicitation dated July 9, 2013, with a return address of PO Box 229019 in St. Louis.

Titled "Award Request Notice," the letter told Coyne she would become eligible to receive $7,167 after she returned the notice. The Children's Cancer Dream Network also asks for a charitable gift to help "children battling cancer," but points out that no donation is required to remain eligible for the $7,167 award.

Coyne also received many similar letters, all soliciting optional donations:

* The Children's Cancer Assistance Fund promised her the possibility of winning $7,152 if she returned that letter to PO Box 229018 in St. Louis.

* The Children's Sunshine Network promised a chance to win $6,714.33 if Coyne returned that letter to PO Box 229010 in St. Louis.

* The Veterans Relief Network promised her the chance to win $7,588.55 if she responded to PO Box 229013 in St. Louis.

"From the letters I have received, I think they have 10 or 15 related entities," Coyne said. "This has to be a scam. These letters are going out to people that might not be aware. They think they are going to give some money to help people in need.

"When I gave my first $10, I didn't expect to get anything out of it," she said. "Then I received all these letters from different groups, with almost exactly the same address."

The National Cancer Assistance Foundation, based in Sarasota, Fla., operates some of the agencies that have sent notices to Coyle, including the Children's Cancer Dream Network, the Children's Cancer Assistance Fund and the Breast Cancer Assistance Fund.

The foundation's president is Paul DeBonis, who did not return a phone call to his office in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., last week.

DeBonis used to work with Precision Performance Marketing, a group that was the focus of a Better Business Bureau report in 2011. That report, from the BBB's St. Louis office, was titled "Consumers Should Think Twice About Donating to 7 Charities Tied to St. Louis Area Sweepstakes Firm."

Other groups in the Precision Performance network, the BBB reported, included the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, Children With Hair Loss and Child Watch of North America.

Sweepstakes mailings sent by Precision Performance on behalf of the National Cancer Assistance Foundation raised $817,000, according to the group's 2010 Internal Revenue Service filing. But just $24,000 -- 3 cents for each dollar raised -- actually went into charitable work, according to a report prepared by Bill Smith, an investigator for the BBB.

Judy Strawderman, administrator of the BBB office in Charleston, said that sweepstakes solicitations are "not an uncommon practice. But it is one the BBB certainly doesn't endorse.

"We encourage anybody who is looking to give money to any kind of charity to check its funding to see how much of the money it donates to the actual cause," Strawderman said.

She said groups that use a lottery or sweepstakes system "make people think they are going to win something. People react and give money. It is about the lowest of the low."

 People interested in checking out the legitimacy of a charity can visit:

* http://canton.bbb.org/Find-Business-Reviews shows whether or not a charity is endorsed by the Better Business Bureau.

* http://apps.sos.wv.gov/business/charities/index.aspx, operated by Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, provides detailed information about most charities that solicit funds in West Virginia.

* http://www.guidestar.org provided the annual Form 990 that every tax-exempt charitable group must file with the Internal Revenue Service. These forms contain detailed information about fund-raising and expenditures.

Strawderman said, "There are a lot of charities where administrative and fundraising costs outweigh services actually going to the people.

"They typically involve charities for small kids and cancer victims. In the near future, I think we will see a spike in groups doing things to help veterans, including PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], traumatic brain injuries and issues from multiple deployments.

"West Virginians are very prone to giving to those people. But if they discover that only pennies on their dollars actually go to help veterans, that would be frustrating at best. We will have to keep an eye out for this in the future," Strawderman said.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvagzette.com or 304-348-5164.


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