Experts warn of scams following theater shootings


By BRANDON JOHANSSON, Staff writer

AURORA | Since a gunman opened fire on Aurora theater last month, killing 12 and wounding 58, donations for the victims have poured in.

But experts warn that donors need to pay attention to where they give in the aftermath of the tragedy because scam artists often lurk after high-profile tragedies.

“We know that they exist, we know that charity scams feed off of natural disasters and other public tragedies,” said Jan Zavislan, a deputy at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

Zavislan said that while officials know frauds can and do sometimes happen after tragedies, reports of them are actually very rare.

When a donor gives money, they aren’t expecting anything in return and don’t often check to make sure that money in fact ended up where they expected it to, he said.

“A charitable contribution is often a spur-of-the-moment thing, and it’s done out of pure kindness of heart,” Zavislan said.

The few times investigators do hear about a scam — and Zavislan said the AG’s office has had just 25 complaints over the last two years — the complaint typically hasn’t come from a donor, but from someone involved in the charity who thought something was amiss.

If donors do plan to give money to the victims to the Aurora shootings or anywhere else, Zavislan said it’s a good idea for them to slow down and research the charity.

The Colorado Secretary of State has a registry of charities, he said, and consumers can call a charity to make sure they seem legit.

“Very rarely is the need for money immediate,” he said.

The Federal Trade Commission issued a warning last week telling consumers not to give money to a telemarketer asking for donations and to avoid cash donations.

The warning pointed people who want to help to the Aurora Victim Relief Fund, which Gov. John Hickenlooper has also touted as a safe place to donate.

According to the group’s website, it has already raised almost $500,000 for victims.

Frank Dorman, a spokesman for the FTC, said he hasn’t seen reports of any scams stemming from the Aurora shootings, but they know its a possibility.

“We just think that they are generally out there when tragedy strikes,” he said.

While there haven’t been reports of any scams stemming from the theater shootings, Aurora has seen charity scams in the past. After a car crash killed three people in 2008, including a toddler in an ice cream shop, an Aurora man was charged with theft after police say he kept the proceeds from a charity poker tournament meant to benefit the victims families.

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