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The Top 9 Charity Scams of All Time

One of the most disgusting methods criminals use to con money out of the populace involves exploiting philanthropic intentions. These frauds pose as altruistic organizations hoping to make this sick, unfair world slightly better, then use some underhanded accounting tactics and use it for their own personal needs. Fortunately, resources such as Charity Navigator, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Better Business Bureau and others provide consumers with plenty of advice on how to recognize a potential fraud trying to pass itself off as something entirely altruistic. Research them thoroughly before making any definitive financial commitments.

Within the context of this list, the worst of the lot will be a combination of both financial and ethical egregiousness — such as siphoning money away from traditionally marginalized or underfunded communities or exploiting visceral disasters. It primarily deals with scams found in the United States because of easier access to research as well.

  1. Hurricane Katrina Scams: Following the 2005 devastation of the American Gulf Coast, the FBI estimates around 4,000 websites sprang up to misdirect genuine signs of charity into the bank accounts of shameless scammers. At least 60% of these were hosted on foreign servers, a move which generally sends up warning signs to anyone scanning for legitimacy. Some of the more egregious offenses solicited donations from the well-intentioned posing as the Red Cross and other real charities doing real work — a sneaky strategy that worked before and, unfortunately, continued to do so.

  2. Haitian Earthquake Scams: Natural disasters bring out both the amazing best and the absolute worst in society. 5 years after Katrina, the cataclysmic earthquake that ravaged Haiti sent even more would-be philanthropists scrambling for their debit cards. It also inspired sick opportunists to start immediately registering fake domains and posting solicitations within hours of the tragedy. Considering internet traffic related to Haiti skyrocketed 1,578% after the story broke — and URLs based in the Caribbean nation saw a 5,407% increase in bandwith use — that means fertile ground for exploiting charitable inclinations.

  3. Bernie Madoff: The infamous Bernie Madoff scandal came about when the investment manager’s Ascot Partners (a hedge fund) turned out to be a multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme. An estimated $50 billion was lost to his underhandedness, which earned him 86 different counts of fraud. What makes Madoff’s actions particularly horrifying is his complete willingness to steal from charitable organizations. Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and activist Elie Wiesel entrusted the investor with millions of dollars, both personally and through his charity. The Eli Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which devotes its resources to fighting injustice and intolerance around the world, lost $15.2 million – though this was by no means the only nonprofit he leeched dry. Hospitals and universities also suffered from little to no returns on his promises.

  4. Shiloh International Ministries: Named by the Oregon Department of Justice and the Better Business Bureau both as the United States’ worst charity. Also known as Handicapped Children’s Services of America, American Veterans Network and Second Chance, it purports to care for the poor and hungry in the community, particularly children, the homeless and veterans. Of course, what it says it does and where the money actually goes are two completely different monsters entirely. Its 0-star ranking on Charity Navigator should be the first sign of trouble. 3.4% of its income goes towards the purported goals, with 12.7% going towards administrative costs and a whopping 83.8% shunted towards fundraising. Suffice to say, Shiloh International Ministries has made its priorities painfully clear.

  5. Japan Relief Scams: Considering the myriad hardships and heartbreaks befalling Japan within the past few weeks, it comes as absolutely no surprise that the shameless and greedy immediately started cashing in on the triple tragedies of the earthquakes, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. Because legitimate charities continue to collect donations with the hopes of helping the devastated nation rebuild, right now it’s impossible to gauge exactly how much money the scams have pulled in so far. As long as the genuinely effective ones want to help, their felonious counterparts will continue to pull in funds — sometimes appropriating identical or similar names! What makes them amongst the worst is their absolute shamelessness in exploiting very real disasters with decades of disconcerting repercussions.

  6. National Veterans Services Fund: Even many of the most hardcore liberals in the United States feel as if the country oftentimes fails its military veterans. Charities hiding under the guise of assisting the men and women of the armed forces commit a particularly egregious offense by diverting funds away from a frequently overlooked, marginalized demographic. This 0-star charity has yet to respond to any of the charges levied against it at the Better Business Bureau. Formerly known as Vietnam Veterans Against Agent Orange Victims, it was founded in 1984 and continues to elicit suspicion, especially considering how little information it posts on the website. Charity Navigator reports the National Veterans Services Fund drops 17.5% on program expenses, 5.3% on its administration and 77.1% on fundraising.

  7. Boys Choir of Harlem: Once upon a time, the Boys Choir of Harlem provided some amazing opportunities for underprivileged youth to find life, love and passion in music. The organization took them all over the world, and participants performed at such prestigious venues as the White House and Royal Albert Hall. It undeniably made a difference — far more than many of the others listed here, for certain. And the fact that such an initially successful pursuit fell to administrative trickery and mismanagement adds an extra layer of tragedy to the story. Founder Dr. Walter J. Turnbull covered up a sexual abuse scandal in 2001, 6 years before his charity dissolved completely. Before that, a whopping 66.3% of the Boys Choir of Harlem’s income went straight towards paying off its administrators. Only 33.6% paid for the actual programming itself. While it still made a difference to many young people, a history of switched priorities and carelessness prevented anything beyond a muddy legacy.

  8. 9/11 Scams: This list blends both egregious financial and ethical breaches, and none proved more profitable or disheartening than those exploiting the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Eager philanthropists found themselves targeted by shameless organizations claiming to help the families of victims, firefighters and law enforcement officials. Tuesday’s Children, for example, saw at least $311,000 go towards nonrelated expenses for founder Chris Burke. However, his parents donated $500,000 to defray some of the fraudulent spending. Regardless, Burke’s offenses put a face on what sort of person thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to steal from individuals already traumatized by the horrific events.

  9. Firefighter and Police Charity Scams: Firefighters Charitable Foundation, considered one of the worst institutions listed on Charity Navigator, is by no means alone in its use of local services to scam well-intentioned citizens. Oftentimes, these organizations imply that the money goes right back into the community. In reality, however, most of it just goes straight into the pockets of those perpetuating the fraud. FCF, for example, only spent 10.2% of its earnings to assist both firefighters and the victims they assist. Considering how most municipalities could genuinely use as much funding as they can get to ensure the safety of the citizenry, such a masquerade meant to evoke legitimacy seems particularly nasty.

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