Richard Belanger has received his share of telephone calls from organizations asking him to give money to charity.
But something struck the Lewiston, Maine, resident as odd when he got a call last summer soliciting funds for the local sheriff's office.
In exchange for buying an advertisement in a police yearbook, the caller offered a sticker for Mr. Belanger's car that would act as a sort of "Get Out of Jail Free" card.
The caller, who identified himself as a local deputy sheriff, advised Belanger that if he were stopped for speeding or some other traffic violations, law-enforcement officers, upon seeing his sticker, would simply "look the other way."
What the caller didn't know was that Belanger counts among his close friends several deputy sheriffs in Androscoggin County, and none of them would ever "look the other way."
He called the local sheriff's office and discovered they didn't publish a yearbook and weren't conducting a fund-raising drive. In fact, they told him, under Maine law it is illegal for a police officer to solicit contributions.
Belanger had just joined tens of thousands of other Americans who each year are contacted by unscrupulous telephone solicitation companies who piggy-back on good causes to line their own pockets.
Not everyone is as sharp as Belanger.
By some estimates illegal telemarketers rake in as much as $700 million a year through sham fund-raising efforts, posing as police and firefighter charities. They do it $25, $50, and $100 at a time.
Frequently they identify themselves as law-enforcement officials and falsely suggest that contributions will help local police or fire operations. Sometimes they say proceeds will go to the family of a fallen police officer or firefighter. But the money never makes it to family members. They promise that the funds will support a drug-treatment program for youths, or the purchase of bulletproof vests, or new hoses. It never does.
Officials at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) who specialize in investigating such scams say they are enormously successful.
"It is an easy pitch to get consumers to open their wallets," says Chuck Harwood, director of the FTC's regional office in Seattle. "It is not a big amount of money, and most of us are extremely happy to support our local police and fire departments."
MOST people, however, aren't prepared to do what Belanger did next. Realizing the fund-raising operation could be a scam, he told the caller he would contribute $1,000. He did it to entice the solicitor into a trap. Then he called the police to set up a sting operation.
Detective Sgt. Eric Parker of the Androscoggin County Sheriff's Department found other business owners in his Maine community who had been approached in the same manner. Some made contributions believing they would go to the local sheriff's department.
He tracked the calls to a telemarketing firm, Southwest Publishing in Phoenix and discovered they were raising money on behalf of a group called the American Deputy Sheriffs' Association in Houston.
Contrary to the assertion of the telephone fund-raiser who identified himself as a local deputy sheriff in Maine, not a single dollar was ever sent to Androscoggin County, Detective Parker says.
He says no one in his sheriff's department has ever heard of the American Deputy Sheriffs' Association, let alone received financial assistance from the group.
Attempts by the Monitor to contact the Houston-based group were unsuccessful. It does not maintain a listed telephone number in Houston, although it bills itself as a national organization of law-enforcement officers. Other telephone numbers for the association that were provided to the Monitor by investigators were not answered.
Similar calls were placed to the offices of Southwest Publishing and a related company, Stealth Publications Inc., both in Phoenix. No one answered in those offices.
A federal district judge in Phoenix has ordered both Southwest Publishing and Stealth Publications to refrain from fraudulent telemarketing practices. The judge also ordered a receiver to take over the operation of both companies pending further investigation.
According to federal court documents, Southwest and Stealth conducted a nationwide fund-raising effort on behalf of such groups as the American Deputy Sheriffs' Association, the International Union of Police Associations, United Fire Fighters of America, Fire Fighters of America, Disabled Peace Officers of America, National Reserve Peace Officers of America, the National Association of Veteran Police Officers, and the Nation's Missing Children Organization.
Court documents say Southwest would pay each group about $4,000 a month in exchange for the right to use the organization's name to solicit money. Any funds collected above the $4,000 each month were retained by Southwest.
The FTC claims that Southwest kept roughly 90 percent of all money raised on behalf of the American Deputy Sheriffs' Association and other organizations. If the FTC is right, the majority of the money raised in Androscoggin County went to a company in Phoenix. The remaining 10 percent went to an association in Houston.
The impact of the fund-raising continues to be felt in Maine. Word about the telemarketing effort has left many reluctant to give at all.
Parker says his department sponsors an annual fund-raiser to support an antidrug program for local youths. They stage a charity hockey match against retired members of the Boston Bruins hockey team.
Last year, prior to the police yearbook scam, the charity match pulled in $14,000. A year later - after the scam - he says the charity game raised $1,000.
HOW TO AVOID BEING SCAMMED BY 'CHARITIES' ON THE PHONE
* Refuse to make any contributions or pledges over the telephone. Tell persistent solicitors that you only consider mailed solicitations that can be easily verified as belonging to authentic charities.
* When in doubt, hang up.
* Never give credit card information to telephone solicitors unless you have initiated the call and know to whom you are speaking.
* Experts say it's always better to make contributions directly to a charitable organization rather than through professional fund-raisers. Such fund-raisers, even for legitimate charities, may keep half or more of a donation to cover their own costs.
* If you want to respond to a telephone solicitation, ask fund-raisers for identification and ask them how the money will be spent. Then call the organization to verify that the fund-raising is legitimate. Also ask how much of your money will actually make it to the charity.
* Be wary if a fund-raiser says you will receive special treatment for your donation.
* Never give cash.
* Make checks out to the official name of the group or charity.