Woman avoids falling for $187M ‘sham’ cancer charity

When the phone rang in JoEllyn Belka’s home the voice on the other end of the line appealed to her emotions and her checkbook.

“It was for kids, kids that were stricken with cancer and anybody wants to help a kid out,” Belka said.

The telemarketer identified themselves as soliciting donations for the Breast Cancer Society. When the telemarketer couldn’t answer all of Belka’s questions and pushed for a donation, it raised a red flag.

“They just acted like you should donate, like it was going to be an automatic giving to this. You’ve got to take a step back from something like that,” Belka said.

She did some research online about the cancer charity and decided against making a donation, but two months later received another call from a telemarketer with a similar appeal to help cancer patients. She again declined to make a donation.

“It’s about cancer. I mean, my husband’s mom had cancer, I’ve had several people that have died from cancer,” Belka said.

That emotional appeal is what investigators with the Federal Trade Commission believe four cancer charities used to bilk more than $187 million from consumers.

The four charities under federal investigation are the Breast Cancer Society, the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services and Children’s Cancer Fund of America. The FTC has filed suit against all four organizations.

The FTC believes 85 percent of the donations went into the pockets of professional fundraisers and much of the remaining money was used to purchase cars, trips, sports tickets and dating site memberships.

The FTC said less than 3 percent of the $187 million went to support cancer patients or research. The FTC worked with 58 law enforcement agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia during the investigation.

As far back as 2009 the Better Business Bureau put out warnings to consumers about the four cancer charities. Those warnings informed consumers that while millions of dollars were being raised almost none of the cash goes to direct aid.

“We have files on them,” said Kimberly Hazen, regional director for the Better Business Bureau. “It is a really big area for scams unfortunately because we already have the emotional tie to whatever the charity, in this case cancer research and you have support for cancer patients. You know, who doesn’t it affect? It affects everyone.”

Hazen said it is important to do the research and know who you are donating money to and exactly how those funds will be used. The Better Business Bureau monitors charitable organizations and charts what percentage of donations is spent on the mission. She said consumers should be wary of telemarketers who appeal to your emotions and are reluctant to answer questions.

“That’s a really good red flag,” Hazen said. “Anything that moves you from the cold rational decision making side of your brain to the heated, emotional kind of feeling; then you’ve got to really stop and think.”

“I would use that feeling of getting emotional about a charitable organization. I would use that as a sign to say, ‘OK, I need to check these guys out.’ If they are falling back on an emotional appeal maybe they don’t have a leg to stand on. Maybe they really can’t give me the cold hard facts,” Belka said.