I-Team: Where your local police and firefighter donations are really going

CINCINNATI -- Police and fire charities raise millions of dollars in the Tri-State every year.

But in many cases, only a single dime of each dollar raised goes to help actual officers and firefighters hurt in the line of duty. Even worse, the police and firefighter representatives that call your home asking for donations aren’t always officers – sometimes they're convicted felons.

State filings uncovered by the I-Team show organizations such as Firefighters Support Foundation and Disabled Police and Sheriff's Association paid telemarketers 90 cents for every $1 they raised in the region.

"It's disgusting to know people are making money off the backs of injured police officers," said Lockland Police Officer Brandon Gehring.

Gehring was placing stop sticks on an I-75 exit ramp during a police chase in 2009 when he was hit by another officer’s cruiser.

His injuries were severe.

"I had a fractured skull. On my left side, all my ribs were broken. I have seven plates in there now. I had a punctured lung," Gehring said. "Everyone told me I would be lucky to walk, let alone ever work again."

Despite being an injured officer in need, Gehring received fundraising calls at his home like many Tri-State residents from people claiming to be police asking for money.

"It felt weird to me that someone would be calling me at my house, looking for help," Gehring said.

Even Reading Police Chief Scott Snow and his staff have received these calls.

Snow said he can figure out fast something is not right with the call because many solicitors “are very careful not to say they’re police officers.”

“They’ll say ‘I represent the local police department' or 'we're a group of officers'," Snow said.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who tracks every registered charity and professional solicitor operating in the state, filed a lawsuit in September against Encore Music Productions Ltd.

According to DeWine, Encore solicited for more than 30 organizations in Ohio since 2006 by selling tickets and business advertisements for local concerts.

DeWine said Encore committed several violations including:

  • Training telemarketers to falsely identify themselves as volunteers or firefighters.
  • Failing to identify themselves as professional solicitors.
  • Failing to properly register with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
  • Lying to donors by saying 100 percent of donations went to a local charity, when only 10 to 33 percent went to charity.

"People, whether they have money or don't have money, want to be assured that their $15 or $20 is actually going to a charity, and not going to be eaten up…by a telemarketer,” DeWine said. "That's not illegal per se, but how many of us would give money to our local police if we knew 90 percent of that money was going to paid solicitors who are in some other state?"

DeWine said Encore also hired more than 22 recently convicted felons as telemarketers to solicit money – which is a violation of Ohio law.

"You are not allowed to use convicted felons in the state of Ohio to do direct solicitation, and we have caught solicitors who are doing that," he said.  

The website CharityNavigator.org , which rates fundraising groups, lists the organization Firefighters Charitable Foundation No. 1 on its ranking of "consistently low-rated charities ." The foundation has raised millions by phone in Ohio.

The I-Team tracked one of its solicitors to an empty storefront in West Chester and another address in Hamilton.

The for-profit Firefighters Services, LLC raised more than $670,000 in Ohio over a three-year period for the Firefighters Charitable Foundation. According to records, the charity got a little more than a $100,000 of that – meaning the telemarketers kept 85 cents of every $1 donated.

And even if you're on the National Do Not Call Registry, these agencies can still call you for money.

For-profit companies are exempt from the Do Not Call list when they're calling on behalf of non-profit charities -- even if the telemarketer keeps most of the money raised.

But it’s important to remember there are real police and fire charities that aren’t paying telemarketers the majority of donations.

Gehring, the officer who needed financial help in 2009, said he was able to get back on his feet thanks to a local police charity called The Shield.

“The Shield stepped in and they actually started helping immediately," he said.

So how can you spot a phony charity or telemarketer trying to take advantage of your generosity?

Don’t Waste Your Money consumer reporter John Matarese breaks it down here .

MORE: See a complete list of professional solicitors registered in Ohio

ALSO: Download the attorney general's 2012 Annual Solicitor Report to see HOW MUCH of each foundation's collected donation money actually went to charity:

 
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