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‘Deceptive’ charity must pay $95,000

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

RICHMOND — A Florida-based nonprofit and its former directors have been ordered to pay $95,000 for using deceptive practices to solicit donations — very little of which benefited the wounded veterans it was supposed to serve, officials say.

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring and 10 other state attorneys general obtained the consent judgment from Healing Heroes Network Inc. and its directors Stacey, Allan and Neal Spiegel. Herring says the settlement also names Hero Giveaways LLC, a business Stacey and her son Neal formed after Healing Heroes fell under investigation in multiple states.

According to that investigation, Healing Heroes used deceptive sweepstakes mailers and telephone solicitations to raise millions of dollars in donations for veterans wounded in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The funds were supposed to help those veterans receive medical treatments not readily provided by Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The charity also falsely claimed on social media in 2016 and 2017 to dedicate 100% of proceeds to wounded veterans,” according to Herring. Instead, he says, most of the funds “were used to pay professional fundraisers, online advertising fees, the salaries of Stacey … and … Neal Spiegel, and to purchase t-shirts from another family member’s t-shirt business.”

Hero Giveaways LLC used the same practices after it was formed, Herring says. Other states involved in the action, part of Operation Donate With Honor, are California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon and Washington.

The $95,000 judgment, which covers all states seeking judgment, must be made to a veteran’s charity whose mission matches the mission claimed by Healing Heroes. The Spiegels are banned from overseeing, managing or soliciting charitable contributions for any nonprofit agency for the next five years.

Federal Trade Commission and National Association of State Charities Officials started Operation Donate With Honor in 2018 to identify fraudulent charities claiming to serve veterans, but primarily using contributions to enrich the charity’s founders and professional fundraisers.

If you think you have been the victim of a fraudulent charity, contact Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Office of Charitable and Regulatory Programs (OCRP) at 804-786-1343 or Herring’s consumer protection department at 800-552-9963.

Herring offers the following tips when donating to charities or other organizations:

•On crowdfunding sites: Check the creator or page owner’s credentials and try to confirm its authenticity and seriousness. Look for indicators of endorsement or legitimacy that the page is actually collecting donations for a particular victim or organization. Some sites offer verification and transparency measures for campaigns. Look for those markers of authenticity, and check out the site’s fraud protection measures.

•Be cautious. If you feel uneasy, contribute to a more established charity in the community.

•Be wary of charities that spring up overnight in connection with a current event or natural disaster. They may make a compelling case for a donation but even if they are legitimate, they may not have the infrastructure or experience to get your donation to the affected area or people.

•Only give to charities and fundraisers you can confirm are reliable and legitimate. Scrutinize charities with consumer advocates or friends and find out how much of your donation will go to the charity’s programs and services.

•Beware of “copy-cat” names that sound like reputable charities. Some scammers use names that closely resemble those of respected, legitimate organizations.

•Be especially cautious if you do not initiate the contact with the charity.

•Do not be pressured into giving. Legitimate organizations will not expect you to contribute immediately.

•Ask for written information about the charity, including name, address and telephone number. Legitimate organizations will give you materials about the charity’s mission, how your donation will be used, and proof that your contribution is tax-deductible. Just because a “charity” has a tax identification number does not mean your contribution is tax-deductible.

•Avoid cash donations. Make checks payable to the charitable organization and not to an individual collecting a donation. For security and tax record purposes, you may wish to pay by credit card.

•If contributing over the internet, be sure the website you are visiting belongs to the charity to which you want to donate. See if other legitimate websites will link to that website. Make sure the site is secure and offers protection of your credit card number.

•If a charity is soliciting contributions in Virginia, verify its registration with OCRP, mentioned above, or by searching OCRP’s Charitable Organization Database online. However, registration alone does not mean the organization will be effective.

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