The Wheel Deal

If you're thinking of donating your car to charity, look north, young man

"Donate Your Wheels for Meals" read a recent advertisement wedged into the "Autos Wanted" section of the Sun-Sentinel's classified ads. "Don't let your neighbor go hungry." As anyone who has watched an old car deteriorate into a pile of rust in the driveway knows, the idea of unloading that burden for some higher cause has appeal. You call the charity. They tow it away, auction it, or sell it for parts to a junkyard. They pocket the proceeds. You get a tax write-off and the warm feeling that you've done something worthwhile.

It's popular. Lucrative too. One used-car lot run by a charity in Cleveland raised $360,000 last year to fund group homes for the mentally and physically disabled. In South Florida, four charities advertise for vehicle donations in the local daily papers. Two of the four are based in New York and solicit nationally.

Some of these local ads are misleading. They are also illegal. Only one of the charities is registered with the state -- the Rainbow Foundation, a nonprofit located in Davie that raises money for the mentally disabled. Representatives for the other three (United Charities of America Inc., Cars for Tots Inc., and Meals on Wheels Programs and Services) told New Times they didn't know about the state law requiring charities to register.

The purpose of registration is to protect consumers from money machines masquerading as charities. It allows donors to learn how much money a charity has collected in any given year, what proportion went to salaries and other administrative expenses, and how much was actually spent helping people.

Additionally, the law requires that a charity include its full name, its state registration number, and a toll-free Division of Consumer Services telephone number, 800-435-7352, in every print advertisement. None of the charities advertising in local newspapers did that.

Equally troubling is the deceptive wording of the Meals on Wheels ad. Some Sentinel readers spotted it and concluded that the Broward County program was seeking funds, says its chief executive officer, John Pudwell. That's a logical assumption considering that the ad talks about helping "your neighbor." "People have called me and said, 'Why didn't you tell me you needed money?'" Pudwell says.

But Meals on Wheels of Broward County does only one fundraiser annually -- selling dinners, donated by corporations, at area restaurants. The rest of its budget comes from individual donations and federal funds. The organization has never hauled used cars and boats to make money, Pudwell says.

Indeed, neither the local Meals on Wheels program nor the national membership organization for Meals on Wheels knows anything about the company that placed the ad.

"It's a fraud," Pudwell declares.

"I've never heard of them," says Enid Borden, CEO of the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

That raised New Times's suspicion. So we decided to call all the charities.

At Cars for Tots, a man who identifies himself as "Billy D" answers the telephone. The charity, he says, is located in New York state and solicits car and boat donations through ads placed in newspapers in cities all over the country. He explains that Cars for Tots helps parents who can't afford to care for their children, although sometimes, if the vehicle is in decent shape, the charity gives a family a donated car. And, he says, 60 to 73 percent of the money gleaned from donations is used to help people. The most expensive donation ever received by Cars for Tots, he says, was a boat that brought in $8000 during a raffle.

When questioned about what the "D" stands for in his name, Billy D. responds gruffly: "Just leave it at that." Then he promises to fax documentation to New Times with details about Cars for Tots, including financial information. But we never receive any communications from him. When we call back, repeatedly, Billy D. is too busy to talk. We leave messages. He doesn't return our phone calls. Meanwhile, we learn that Cars for Tots Inc. is listed as a for-profit business with New York state.

While we wait for Billy D.'s return call, we try the telephone number listed in the ad for Meals on Wheels Programs and Services, which both local and national officials have questioned. Strangely, a man who sounds a lot like Billy D. answers the telephone. "Do you have a car you want to donate?" he says. No, we seek only information. He politely explains that the New York-based nonprofit raises money and then doles it out to local Meals on Wheels programs throughout the nation, based upon need.

After further questioning, he suggests that New Times speak to the owner of Meals on Wheels Programs and Services. We ask his name. There is a long, long pause.

"Are you looking for it?" we ask. Silence. "You're looking for it?"

More silence.

Finally, he responds, "Stanley, Stanley Lord."

So New Times attempts to reach Mr. Lord or some other company representative. Again, we leave numerous messages. Finally, while listening to a phone recording late one afternoon, we are directed to call Meals on Wheels Programs and Services of Rockland County. One more phone call and we reach Executive Director Rochelle Berger. She says that her Meals on Wheels program contracts with Billy D.'s company to raise money through car and boat donations. Berger explains that she receives a check for $1500 to $2500 from Cars for Tots every four weeks or so. That represents half of the money collected, minus administrative costs, she explains (which differs from Billy D.'s version).

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