In Our View: Contain Slide's Damage

Beware of phony or unqualified charities that aim to profit from tragedy in Oso

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As the grim hunt for victims continues near the tiny town of Oso in Snohomish County, state officials have delivered a disconcerting reminder: Some people are so callous they will attempt to profit from the tragic mudslide that hit northern Washington.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Secretary of State Kim Wyman, along with the Better Business Bureau, have warned consumers of phony charities soliciting money by claiming the cash will go to relief efforts. This while the number of missing is still being counted. This while the death toll likely is far from finalized. This while others, touched by the depth of the horrific event, are simply trying to provide assistance in any way they can.

A mudslide Saturday buried a rural neighborhood, blocked a highway, and dammed the North Fork Stillaguamish River. Days after the reminder of Mother Nature’s power, the death toll Wednesday stood at 16, with 90 people believed to be missing.

It is the kind of event that brings out the best in humanity — and also the worst. “All of us in Washington and around the country have deep sympathy for the victims and their loved ones and friends at this tragic time,” Ferguson said. “It is a natural instinct to want to provide assistance right away, but Secretary Wyman, the BBB and I advise potential donors to exercise caution and make sure their hard-earned dollars go for the purpose intended, not to line the pockets of scam artists.” Wyman added: “Sadly, there always seem to be rip-off artists who take advantage of people. It is shameful, but some so-called charities take advantage of our generous nature.”

Yes, it is shameful. And state officials offered some helpful hints to avoid being duped:

• Be suspicious of solicitors requesting immediate donations.

• Make sure that charities are qualified to provide the type of disaster relief that is necessary.

• Avoid cash donations. Write a check directly to the charity, not the fundraiser.

• Never give out credit cards over the phone.

• Be wary of “new” charities with unverifiable background information.

• Don’t be fooled by a name. Be watchful of charities that use sympathetic sounding names, or names similar to well-known legitimate charities.

Most charities are trustworthy, but preying on the generosity of others is nothing new. Last year, a CNN report — in conjunction with the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting — listed what they called the 50 worst charities in the country. The most egregious was something called Kids Wish Network, which raises millions of dollars in donations each year in the name of dying children, but spends less than 3 cents of each dollar raised in providing assistance. The investigation also found a diabetes charity that raised nearly $14 million over a decade and gave about $10,000 to patients. These are the exceptions to the rule, but they point out the opportunity that an unexpected tragedy such as the Oso mudslide can present for the unscrupulous.

The scope of the Oso mudslide still is difficult to comprehend. “Rescue or recovery — we are doing both,” Travis Hots, chief of Arlington Rural fire district, told The (Everett) Herald, and those efforts will take weeks. Reports said that as many as 176 people were unaccounted for, but that number has remained in flux. Many lives have been lost; many others have been irrevocably altered. The generous nature of Americans will lead people to offer assistance, and a little diligence can ensure that such assistance gets where it needs to go.