From heartache to help: Advice for turning grief into support for Sandy Hook survivors and families

CINCINNATI - Many of us would like to help the parents and residents of Newtown, Connecticut, deal with this horrible tragedy.

But unlike the aftermath of a hurricane, it's not as easy as donating clothing and food, which these families for the most part do not need.

So what can you do?

How to help

Several legitimate charities are now collecting funds:

How to avoid being scammed

The Better Business Bureau is known for helping consumers screen businesses and charities. As Tri-State residents consider how they can help the Newtown, CT community, we had few questions about giving and avoiding fraudsters.

Erika Lehman, director of the Cincinnati BBB's Center for Ethics, took the time to answer them.

Q. A tragedy like the one in Newtown can bring out the best in us, especially when there's an opportunity to help. Unfortunately, there are opportunists out there, too. What kinds of scams and schemes tend to crop up when the nation is grieving?

A. After national tragedies, donors frequently report two kinds of problems to BBB. The first issue arises when well-intentioned charities are unable to fulfill promises made to donors. Charities, like individuals, often ask "what can we do to help?" They may choose to mobilize their donor networks to make monetary contributions or give donated items to assist the victims.

Despite their good intentions, these charities may be ill-equipped to provide direct support to victims, because communication and transportation in the affected areas is often complicated. Donors should seek out charities with on-the-ground presence in the affected areas or check the charity's website to verify how it intends to address immediate needs.

The second issue arises when donors give impulsively online. Spam emails purporting to be from charities providing relief to victims tend to increase following natural disasters. Fake websites will crop up overnight. Donors should investigate thoroughly before giving to any charity online. Call the charity and verify its website address before making a contribution. Then, visit the charity's website directly to make your gift.

Q: How can people report cases in which they suspect an individual or group is soliciting funds fraudulently?

A: Donors are encouraged to file complaints with BBB and the Ohio Attorney General if they suspect an individual or groups are soliciting funds fraudulently.

In either case, the donor should be prepared to provide the charity or individual's contact information. Providing copies of any solicitations received (whether electronically or via mail) is also helpful for investigating these claims.

Finally, if a donor makes a contribution then suspects the contribution was not used as intended, the donor can file a complaint with his or her local police department. Soliciting contributions with no intention of using the money as advertised may constitute theft in some jurisdictions.

Q. What advice do you have for groups and individuals who want to help the Sandy Hook community? In other words, which reputable agencies or organizations can make sure the money gets to those in need?

A. BBB strongly recommends that donors rely on expert opinions when evaluating charities. Though well-intentioned, bloggers and website editors may not have full researched relief organizations they list. Donors can visit www.bbb.org to research charities across the United States. They are encouraged to verify that charities are "BBB Accredited," which demonstrates compliance with BBB's high ethical standards of operation.

Q. BBB provides a means for consumers to check out charities before giving. What other resources do you offer for people with questions about giving?

A. By visiting www.bbb.org/charity , donors can access a variety of tips for making smart donation decisions. Additionally, donors can call BBB (513-421-3015) with questions about charitable solicitations. Based on BBB's vast expertise, we can guide

donors through the questions they may want to ask charities about the solicitation or advise donors about the red flags we identify in the solicitations.

Q. What about setting up a charity, whether for the Sandy Hook community or another cause – what information can consumers get from BBB in their community?

A. In addition to complying with all federal, state, and local laws and regulations, BBB recommends individuals use our 20 Standards for Charity Accountability ( http://www.bbb.org/us/standards-for-charity-accountability/ ) as a guide when setting up new organizations. The Standards promote fair and honest solicitation practices and provide a framework for ethical conduct by charities.

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