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By Rose Hoban

North Carolinians who thought they were giving money to help cancer patients are about to get refunds, courtesy of a class action lawsuit.

The offices of Attorney General Roy Cooper and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall announced Wednesday that North Carolina is part of a nationwide settlement against two “sham cancer charities,” the Cancer Fund of America and Cancer Support Services.

Image courtesy College-Guide, flickr creative commons

The lawsuit alleged the two groups raised more than $75 million between 2008 and 2012 purportedly to help cancer patients and support research, but kept about 85 percent of the gifts for themselves.

The suit was filed by officials from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Federal Trade Commission, which also sued the Breast Cancer Financial Assistance Fund, the Breast Cancer Society of America and James Reynolds Sr., who ran the charities.

Reynolds is also permanently barred from charity work.

The other defendants in the case settled their portion of the suit in 2015.

North Carolinians donated about $1.03 million to the charities during the four-year period and, according to Cooper’s office, more than 80 percent of the money went to the fundraisers.

The news irked Leslie Boyd, of WNC Health Advocates in Asheville. Boyd lost her 33-year-old son to colon cancer and started her organization to provide support and advocacy around access to care and helping people get their wills and powers of attorney papers in order.

[pullquote_right]The Federal Trade Commission has an educational page about avoiding charity scams. [/pullquote_right]“Everyone is scared of cancer. You hear that word and someone calls and asks you to give to cancer, it’s like asking to support apple pie,” Boyd said.

But she said donors should ask what the charity is doing: whether it’s helping people, doing actual research, paying for chemotherapy for someone who can’t afford it or other activities. She said the answers should be specific.

“There are so many ways to find out what a charity is doing and how much money is being spent on services and collaborating with other charities doing real work,” Boyd said.

Good sources are Guidestar and Charity Navigator, both of which make charities’ federal financial documents available. Another source is a charity’s website, which should include links to similar financial documents.

“It is extremely important for people to do thorough research before giving to a charity,” said Mallory Wojciechowski, president and CEO of Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern North Carolina.

She said Better Business Bureau has a resource, the Wise Giving Alliance, for checking out a charity, along with a “scam tracker.”

In a press release, Marshall said it’s important to ask questions of the folks who are soliciting money for their health-related charities.

“Do your homework before you give so that your contributions can do the most good,” she said.

That struck home with Boyd, who said, “If a charity calls me and there’s no way to volunteer, if there’s no way for you to be involved, I’ve got to wonder if they’re legit.”

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North Carolina Health News is an independent, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering health care in North Carolina employing the highest journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy...