JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Charitable scams are on the rise this holiday season and a nationwide one has arrived in Florida and is also seen here in the First Coast. The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is calling it the "Sofia Scam".
This scam is where a group of people holding posters stand in high-traffic intersections asking for donations for a baby named Sofia who has a heart malformation. The sign looks like this with a baby's photo on it and people holding those signs have been seen asking for money at many intersections in Jacksonville. The FBI says these charitable scams are especially during the holiday season.
"These scammers are working to exploit people who have given hearts who want to give to other people at the time of the holiday. They're not only exploiting the people who are giving to them, but they're also exploiting the people who should be receiving this money from legitimate organizations, and really, really need that help," FBI Spokesperson Amanda Videll said.
At the intersection of Beach and Southside Blvd Sunday, numerous people holding these signs for Sofia were spotted, begging passing cars to donate to her medical care. But before you roll down your window to throw money in their buckets, spokesperson for FBI Jacksonville Amanda Videll says to ask them questions.
"Ask who is this money going towards? What are you actually purchasing? Where can I look at the results of my donation? What is your website?" Videll said.
When a First Coat News reporter drove by panhandlers Sunday, she asked the man who the little girl was, but he became irritated and quickly walked away. On Monday, she spotted more panhandlers at the intersection of Beach Blvd and Anniston Road, but this time holding up signs that say, "Donation. Mateo suffers from brain cancer."
It's not known if this is also a charitable scam but when asked who the little boy was, the woman holding the sign and bucket full of money did not answer.
"That's why those types of scams work, people just make an impulse decision, and they get whatever cash they have in their pocket," Videll said.
Videll says there are hundreds of thousands of charitable scams out there. The best way to protect yourself is to ask questions and donate using a credit card.
"We suggest using your credit card and that way you have documentation of it. Then always continue to check your statements to make sure that there aren't any additional withdrawals that have been made on behalf of that organization. Give where you want to give but if you want to make sure that your money is going to someone who really needs to help, then look at those reputable charitable organizations and their track records and make sure that you're giving to groups that are actually using your money in positive ways for the community," Videll added.
Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and FBI Jacksonville says it's not familiar with the "Sofia Scam" being reported across Duval County. However, JSO says it's not illegal for an individual to panhandle for funds and use them for something else other than what is on the sign. If you think you have been affected by a charitable scam, you can report it to the Florida Attorney General.