It’s one of the world’s oldest scams, one of the most lucrative and perhaps the most damaging: people preying on the best instincts of human beings to take their money for personal gain. The internet has made it easier to do than ever, and the con is flourishing. I don’t often write about the incidents when they arise, in part because there’s nothing to argue about: everybody agrees that it’s not just unethical conduct, but bordering on evil. Fake charities are worse than scams, however, because they actively make people less kind, generous and caring for their own protection. Every fake charity exposed makes it harder for real charities to help people who genuinely need it. Like a friend of mine who never helped a homeless person again after seeing a beggar whom he had just given 20 bucks on a New York City street briefly get out of his battered wheel chair and nimbly run over to get a cigarette from a compatriot, those who stop trusting pleas for help seldom start trusting again. The fakes make us less kind and generous, and that makes society worse for everyone.
Fake charities large and small have been much in the news lately, so a little catch-up is warranted.
Recent beauty queen Brandi Lee Weaver-Gates of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, told friends she was battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia and accepted funds from events that raised money to help her pay for medical bills. It was a lie. The 23-year-old was arrested this week and charged with theft by deception and receiving stolen property. Brandi had been crowned Miss Pennsylvania International, so her device of shaving her head to look like she was undergoing cancer treatment was especially effective. The most recent fundraising event held for her was called Bingo for Brandi and raised upwards of $14,000.
So far, she has been told that she has to give her crown and sash back.
Brandi is small potatoes, though, compared to Zvi Shor, who started the National Children’s Leukemia Foundation in 1991 after losing a son to leukemia. His organization’s brochures and telemarketing pitches raised millions for the charity’s bone marrow registry, its cancer research building, and its Make a Dream Come True program for children with cancer, which arranged family trips to Disney theme parks and introduced dying children to their favorite celebrities.
None of these existed as they were described, the New York State attorney general’s office said in a petition filed in State Supreme Court last month. The state charges that more than 80% of the $9.7 million that the charity collected from mid-2009 to mid-2013 was used for fundraising. It paid out only $57,451 in direct cash assistance to leukemia patients, and almost nothing in its “Make-A-Wish” rip-off. Investigators found that the charity was really a one-man operation out of the basement of a home in Brooklyn. That one man was, of course, Shor, who ran a construction and plumbing business. Using the money from his “foundation,” he paid himself $595,000 in salary and $600,000 in deferred compensation from 2009 to 2013, and set up a lifetime pension that would pay him more than $100,000 a year. There was no board, no audits.
His lawyer told the New York Times that Shor set up the foundation with “the best of intentions.”
Oh. Well that’s all right, then.
This was just the latest in a series of large scale fake cancer charity scams that law enforcement has moved to prosecute .In May, the Federal Trade Commission and 58 law enforcement partners from every state and the District of Columbia charged four sham cancer charities and their operators— Cancer Fund of America, Inc. (CFA), Cancer Support Services Inc. (CSS), their president, James Reynolds, Sr., and their chief financial officer and CSS’s former president, Kyle Effler; Children’s Cancer Fund of America Inc. (CCFOA) and its president and executive director, Rose Perkins; and The Breast Cancer Society Inc. (BCS) and its executive director and former president, James Reynolds II. with fraudulently raising more than $187 million from generous Americans and spending almost all of it on the scam’s creators and accomplices, their families and friends, and of course, the fundraisers. It is estimated that only about $5 million of that $187 million actually went to anything related to cancer research or cancer patients.
South Carolina Secretary of State Mark Hammond said, in connection with the announcement of the charges, “When charities lie to donors, it is our duty to step in to protect them. At the same time, however, this historic action should remind everyone to be vigilant when giving to charity. This case is an unfortunate example of why I always tell my constituents to give from the heart, but give smart.” That sounds good, but according to the complaint, the fake charities used materials distributed by the Combined Federal Campaign, which raises money from federal employees for non-profit organizations. When people give to the Combined Federal Campaign or the United Way, they reasonably assume that these organizations have done their due diligence and aren’t passing on donations to scamsters. That is apparently not always a justifiable assumption.
The good news is, I suppose, that many of these frauds and schemes have been discovered, stopped and punished. The bad news that smothers the good is that before this occurs, many generous people give money that could be used to do good things for those in need, but instead is used to assist shameless sociopaths in their lifetime quest to live off of those who do give from the heart, until, jaded by experience, they become as wary, suspicious, selfish—you know: smart—as everyone else.