Holiday scammers out to get you

Holiday scammers out to get you »Play Video
RICHLAND, Wash. -- Washington State’s Attorney General calls it an “egregious crime” and it's happening right here in the Tri-Cities. Fraudulent charities are preying on your desire to help the needy, costing tax payers thousands and the very people who are supposedly being helped even more.

The sounds of the soon-to-be holiday season are right around the corner, but already on our corners are scammers. “They're making a vast amount of money, and they’re not reporting it to the IRS,” said Captain Mike Cobb, with Richland Police. “A lot of people are defrauding good hearted people." People who pretend to be in need, and even worse, people who pretend to be helping those in need.

“They have a name or a design that looks close to a legitimate charity…which fools folks," Attorney General Bob Ferguson told KEPR. Earlier this year, Ferguson put out a call of action to all retailers in Washington and at the same time placed charges on a couple notorious he says for soliciting across the state. Scams from the Searles stretch from King County to Walla Walla.

Ferguson says Joseph and Rena Searles paid people to stand outside grocery and liquor stores, pretending to be part of an autism awareness campaign. They told their collectors to tell people they were volunteers and had an autistic family member. At the end of the day, the Searles are said to have paid the collectors straight out of their donation buckets, $80-$100 depending on their performance. Ferguson says they took the rest.

“That's what makes this so egregious," he said, “they're preying on individuals.” Local police and Ferguson say the Searles are not alone.

“Even people who are not representing charities, we see vans distributing individuals throughout the Tri-Cities. It's a very organized business effort," said Cobb. Both men call it a ‘business’ that's booming because of your generosity.

“I expect this to continue to increase, because there's a lot of profitability in it. People are making a lot of money," said Cobb. He’s urging you to go into this holiday season with your eyes wide open.

“Don't stop your generosity, just increase your awareness.”

Joseph Searles took a plea deal last month, admitting he scammed people out of over $200,000.

So how do you stop this cycle? Do your research and check the charity with the Better Business Bureau.
Ferguson says if you feel pressured, ask for information on the group and walk away, you can always donate later.

If you think you see a scam, call the Secretary of State's office, they have a scam hotline set up.
1-800-551-4636