SINGAPORE - Scam artists posing as charity fund-raisers are becoming more of a menace on the streets, and they are being confused with direct sellers.
Collectors brazenly claim to be genuine volunteers from local charities, while others have even started going door to door, often staying one step ahead of the law.
Organisations like the Yellow Ribbon Project, the Singapore Red Cross, the Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD), the Diabetic Society of Singapore, St Luke's ElderCare and Willing Hearts have all reported that their names were abused by "fund-raisers" this year.
Willing Hearts gets one to two calls a day about individuals selling souvenirs who claim to be from the charity.
The SPD received six reports this year from the public about the same problem.
In some cases, collections of old clothes and electrical appliances and even flag days have been conducted behind SPD's back.
"Everybody's collecting money now, it's ridiculous," said Willing Hearts founder Tony Tay.
These "volunteers" prowl outside popular malls such as Tampines Mall, Raffles City and Plaza Singapura flogging key chains, mobile phone accessories, ice-cream, greeting cards and stationery.
They have also started going door to door in areas such as Bukit Timah and Holland Village.
Reports emerged as early as 1994 that illegal peddlers were abusing the names of charities. Now the lines between charities, scammers and direct sellers have become increasingly blurred.
Willing Hearts' Mr Tay said a direct-selling firm recently registered itself with the same name as his charity and has been selling souvenir items for profit.
The Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority shows that this firm conducts "door-to-door sales to help recruit low income (sic) and ex-convicts to earn". A post on the firm's Facebook page states that it is a "profit-making company" that is "not involved in any donation drive".
But Mr Tay says that he is concerned. "They say that they sell for profit but people still think that Willing Hearts is us, the charity." The company could not be reached for comment.
Recently, there have also been young people peddling beauty treatment vouchers in public.
When some of these young people approached The Straits Times at Jurong East MRT in July, they claimed they were selling the vouchers "to help the children" of a particular group.
They also claimed that 40 per cent of the proceeds would go to this beneficiary. A check by The Straits Times revealed this beneficiary is a registered society, but not a registered charity.
The young people did not have a fund-raising permit, but documents they carried stated they were employed by another company. Their documents also stated that they were doing direct selling, but their sales were not a donation drive or a fund-raising activity.
Both the company and the beneficiary could not be reached for comment. The office of the Commissioner of Charities is investigating the matter.
Lawyer Shashi Nathan said any untruth or misrepresentation that deceives a buyer is tantamount to cheating: "If they give the impression that it's for charity, even if they don't mention the word, and it's not, it could amount to a cheating charge."
The law states that anyone soliciting funds for charity in public requires a licence from either the police or the National Council of Social Service.
Those without a valid licence can face a maximum fine of $5,000, a maximum jail term of two years, or both.
In 2011, only three people were arrested for illegally soliciting funds in public. There were five last year, and in the first six months of this year, seven were arrested.
Enforcement is tricky, said Mr Tay. "There are too many of them and they know the loopholes. We can only spread the word but it can't go around so fast. A lot of people are still unaware."
Charities and legitimate direct sellers are worried that their reputations are taking a hit.
A spokesman for the National Council of Social Service said that scam fund-raising activities "compromise the credibility of voluntary welfare organisations".
Mr Leo Boon Wang, chairman of the Direct Selling Association of Singapore, told The Straits Times: "Some may still be confused and mistake charity scams for direct selling, and this puts a dampener on the reputation of the industry."
Direct sellers such as former convict Leslie Chua, 26, said he relies on the key chains he sells because he cannot find another job.
"Normally I can sell about 15 key chains a day. Now I sell only two," he added. "Everyone thinks we're cons."
Fund-raiser, direct seller or scammer?
- Has a licence issued by either the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) or the police.
- Has an A4-size street hawking licence from the National Environment Agency (NEA) or a Direct Selling Association of Singapore (DSAS) logo on his business card if he is a DSAS member. - Does not say funds will go to charity.
- Does not have a valid NEA, police or NCSS licence, or has a fake licence. - Claims funds will go to charity, but they do not.
How to verify the authenticity of a charity fund-raising licence
Police or NCSS licence
SMS by texting "FR" to 79777. The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth Charities Unit will reply whether the licence number is valid.
- NCSS licence
Smartphone users can also scan the QR code on the permit, which will take them to an online search facility of fund-raising permits approved by NCSS.
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