Before handing over money to help with the oil spill, do some quick homework

In an age in which the government watches for scams on a regular basis, folks should know they can't just create a website and start asking people for money.

We have rules.

Deborah Ponceti of Madeira Beach didn't follow them.

Last week, Ponceti created friends­offlorida.com to build a grass-roots effort to help combat problems caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — one of several efforts emerging as a result of the disaster. Some are scams, while others just aren't prepared to do what they are trying to do.

Ponceti's program came to my attention after Katherine Donahue of Clearwater received an unsolicited e-mail from Friends of Florida asking for money and support. Donahue questioned how legitimate the effort was.

Ponceti is asking for donations on her website of $25, $50, $100, $250 and $500 to support the effort that will be used to buy panty hose to make booms stuffed with human and pet hair. "We also need money to charter boats to lay out the boom," her website states.

(Never mind that BP is supposed to be paying for the cleanup! Friends of Florida needs your money to do it.)

"We just don't have a lot of confidence in the government," said Ponceti, who recently moved to the Tampa Bay area from Nashville.

She said she was in the process of incorporating Friends of Florida and seeking 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service, but "it's just a huge, lengthy process."

Well, in Florida, soliciting funds from the public goes a bit beyond just incorporating a business and getting nonprofit status from the state and the federal government.

Group's like Ponceti's are required to register as a charity with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to solicit money from the public.

Fortunately for Ponceti, she's not in trouble — yet.

"We come across this fairly frequently," Terry McElroy, spokesman for the department, said. "When we become aware of them, we send an inquiry letter. As long as they respond to us, there is no problem."

But if they don't respond, the department will pay the organization a visit. Organizations found soliciting the public without registering face a $500 fine.

For Ponceti, though, there are other concerns that would give consumers pause.

While she says she is studying to become a marine biologist (she took off this past semester), she does not voice any other qualifications to suggest she knows how to run a nonprofit agency that will help with the gulf oil spill.

A year ago, Ponceti filed bankruptcy.

"Even if she's legitimate … she can't solicit until she's registered, I don't care how dire the need," said Deborah Berry of the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services.

Berry warned consumers that "scam artists do set up fake charities" and to be careful about whom they give their money to.

Some solicitations are asking for money to get jobs for people looking to help with the cleanup. And then there are those proposing to help you collect money from BP if the oil spill is costing you money.

Here's the Edge

• Research the organization before giving your money. Whether for the oil disaster or any other cause, know to whom you are giving. You can check with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at (850) 488-2221 or doacs.state.fl.us/consumer.html or with guidestar.org.

• Don't pay up-front fees to get jobs on the cleanup or for payments. For more information on legitimate hiring opportunities with BP, visit the website deepwaterhorizonresponse.com or call toll-free 1-866-448-5816.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Before handing over money to help with the oil spill, do some quick homework 06/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 8, 2010 10:51pm]

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