By Daniel Strumpf

Disaster victims sometimes take more than their fare share

Beverley Turner does what she can to help others in need. This time around, she donated hard-earned dollars to charity. In her mind's eye, the money is making a big difference.

"I expect that it is going to go to the homeless or the displaced," she says.

Like Turner, countless other San Diegans, proving that "America's finest city" is home to some of the nation's finest citizens, have pulled together to help friends, family, neighbors and strangers get back up on their feet in the wake of the devastating October fires. Even children have contributed, emptying their piggy banks as various groups raised millions of dollars with the promise of keeping the funds in the community.

Most donors have expectations like Turner's, but San Diego's good Samaritans might be surprised to learn that while their dollars do end up aiding local causes, they don't always end up in the hands of those who need the most help.

Unfortunately, wherever there are people willing to give, there are others-in many cases, disaster victims-willing to take more than their fair share of the charity pie. It's a fact illustrated by a phrase well known by those in the disaster relief business: "First come the needy and then come the greedy." Selfish victims are a problem philanthropic organizations deal with on a regular basis but don't like to publicize.

At a one-stop disaster relief shop in the Scripps Ranch Recreation Center, caseworkers often deal with greedy victims whose claims range in degrees of subtlety. Some simply demand the same amount of aid that friends, neighbors or other victims in line have received, while others claim to have suffered losses beyond those actually sustained.

"There are always scammers," says Doris Warnas, a Red Cross family services supervisor who oversees caseworkers in Scripps Ranch. "We have had a couple of people who came in and said their houses were destroyed, but when we checked the maps the houses were on streets where homes were untouched."

Warnas says it is a common misconception among donors that their financial gifts are actually handed directly to victims. The Red Cross, like many other charities, provides victims with vouchers and debit cards exchangeable for a variety of goods and services rather than cold cash. She points out that a fist full of dollars does little to provide a cold, tired, hungry and homeless victim with immediate relief. It also keeps the greedy from walking away with large sums of money. However, in the dash to secure a piece of the charity pie, they can profit, and every bit they take leaves less for those truly in need.

Determining the exact levels of needs for families and individuals is one of the toughest challenges charities face. Many groups use complex formulas that take into consideration a victim's family size, reported loss and reported need.

"We do need to be flexible in terms of relief," says Gayle Faulkenthal, a public relations officer for the San Diego/Imperial Counties American Red Cross. "It's not a one-size-fits-all situation."

However, it is Red Cross policy that any goods or services offered to one victim must be offered to all victims. And, according to Warnas, caseworkers are instructed not to reject or deny a victims claim.

"We are pretty experienced at watching body language," she says. "You can sort of tell when someone is lying to you. However, we cannot refuse them. We have to give it to them anyway. We cannot say no. The Red Cross does not say no. Even if we know they are a scammer, we have to give it to them."

That means that the greedy, as well as the truly needy, end up getting what they want rather than what they deserve.

The process of determining need can make distributing aid so difficult that many charitable groups don't bother. Instead, they simply focus on raising funds and pass them on to other organizations better equipped to dole them out. That's why the San Diego Foundation, which raised more than $1.6 million for its San Diego Regional Disaster Fund, awarded grants to groups like the Salvation Army and the San Diego Food Bank.

"There are many other nonprofits closer to the individuals with need," says Laura Simanton of the San Diego Foundation. "We support the work they do."

However, passing funds from one group to another makes it tough to trace a donor's dollars to a victim's pocket.

Although taking advantage of relief organizations may seem criminal, it's actually not a crime, so long as the victim does not misrepresent the facts. Even cases in which they do are rarely ever reported, let alone prosecuted. According to Tony Samson, assistant chief of the Economic Crimes Division of the San Diego County District Attorney's Office, a victim can take advantage of every penny and resource offered.

"I don't think a crime is involved," he says, "but it's definitely not right."

While money is usually donated and collected with the best of intentions, the various groups that handle the funds do receive a great deal of scrutiny. The California Attorney General's office regulates which groups can collect funds and requires them to submit annual reports of how the money was used.

"We are here to make sure that the charities use the money for a charitable purpose," says Tom Dresslar, spokesman for the California Attorney General. "It is pretty much up to the charities to make the decision of who to give it to."

Unfortunately, those decisions don't always correspond with the kind of relief donors envision.