In my constituency of East Dunbartonshire, a company called Helpmates regularly distributes leaflets asking for people to donate clothing to the Third World. Helpmates is not a charity, but like many companies around the UK, it uses the appearance of charitable intentions to pursuade people to give their unwanted clothing, and then sells the clothing at a profit, often in Eastern Europe. Some of these companies will print a number on their leaflets which looks like it might be a registered charity number, but in fact it is a company registration number.
According to the Association of Charity Shops, the activity costs UK charities between £2.5 million and £3 million a year. As I explain below, the practice is also associated with theft and violent crime. Since I started campaigning for the Government to do more to tackle this problem, people from all over the UK have written to me saying that they, too, have been targeted by bogus charities.
What is the problem?
There is nothing wrong with legitimate private companies entering into contractual arrangements to collect second hand clothing on behalf of charaities, and there are reputable companies which do this. Indeed, charities which do not have shops may find it particularly difficult to get donations, and so they rely on door-to-door collections which are often carried out by private companies rather than the charities themselves.
However, the activities of some collection companies are dishonest and even illegal.
Bogus charities misrepresent themselves
Leaflets distributed by bogus charities will usually say there is an urgent need for donations to the Third World, and imply a clear humanitarian motive for their activities. Some may give a registration number – which might be intended to look like a registered charity number, but which is actually a registered company number – while others contain no number at all. Some say in the small print that they are a commercial collecting company, while others do not. They are design to appeal to people’s sense of charity, and it is often not clear from the leaflet that they are actually making a profit.
Bogus charities steal donations meant for real charities
Many bogus charities monitor when real charities have distributed leaflets giving notice of doorstep collections. On the day of the collection, when people have left bags of unwanted clothes out to be taken away, bogus charities will steal those bags from people’s doorsteps before the real charity has had a chance to collect them. This causes a serious loss of revenue for genuine charities and thwarts the good intentions of those wishing to donate. It is estimated that 1 tonne of second-hand clothing can fetch more than £500 on the black market, and that more than 50 tonnes of donated items are stolen each week.
What can be done about it?
In England and Wales, the Government’s Charity Commission distributed 500,000 “Give With Care” leaflets in co-operation with Clothes Aid, to raise awareness of this issue and explain to people how to check to whom they are donating.
Although the Government is not evaluating the impact of the campaign, Clothes Aid believes it to have been successful in raising public awareness. However, the Government has given no indication that it intends to continue to print more leaflets.
In Scotland, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, which is the equivalent of the Charity Commission, does not intend to carry out a similar campaign. I wrote to Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing MSP, who told me that the cost of printing and distributing the leaflets would be too much. The Scottish Government has produced 15,000 leaflets entitled “Charity Doorstep Collections: Making an Informed Choice”, which were distributed to libraries throughout Scotland.
I would like to see a wider campaign with more leaflets, which takes the message to people’s doorsteps, and not just to libraries around Scotland.
On the problem of misrepresentation, it is the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) which is responsible for deadling with this. Their rules state that if an advert “deceives or is likely to deceive the persons to whom it is addressed or whom it reaches” then it should be withdrawn or changed. The ASA told me that the Helpmates flyer being distributed in east Dunbartonshire does not breach these guidelines because it has a company registration number on it and small print which states that it is a commercial collecting company.
Even where the ASA upholds and complaint and passes it on to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to deal with, it is often very difficult for the OFT to do anything about it. Bogus charities frequently move around frequently, chaging addresses so that the authorities cannot keep track of them.
The Charities Act 2006, which came into force in 2009, requires fundraisers to obtain public collections certificates from the Charities Commission before they can carry out collections. However, the Charities Commission has not been given the extra funding it needs to cope with its new responsibilities. If a robust vetting process cannot be maintained then bogus charities may manage to obtain these certificates. In addition, the Charities Act applies only to those outfits explicitly claiming to be charities. Many of the bogus “charities” do not make this claim explicitly, even if their literature strongly implies it, therefore they do not need a license in order to carry out door-to-door collections. This legislation will not be reviewed until 2011.
Until now, the police have not proven to be very effective in preventing the theft of clothing donations intended for real charities. In one case which I raised in Parliament, Havering police, arrested 10 gang members caught unloading stolen clothing into a warehouse in Romford. However, when the police could find neither accommodation in cells nor translators to communicate with the gang members, they were all released without charge. Many police forces lack the resources to tackle such problems.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has been established to deal with the activities of criminal gangs such as these, but tends to focus on drug dealing and human trafficking rather than lower profile issues such as the theft of clothing donations. Since Regional Crime Squads were abolished in 1998 it has been much more difficult for local police forces to co-operate on the regional level that this type of gang activity requires.
How can I tell if a charity is legitimate?
Various advice is available to help you decide whether a clothing collection is legitimate, whether anyone is making a profit from it and where the proceeds are going.
Jo's News Stories on Bogus Charities
External news stories on Bogus Charities
The great charity collection scam (Guardian article)