Liverpool Crown CourtPeter Byrne/PA Wire

Harris Polak, a 54-year-old from Liverpool, has been jailed for three years and nine months for a massive charity collection scam. He recruited a group of charity collectors, who thought they were collecting for Clatterbridge Cancer Research Trust, Cerebral Palsy Care for Children and Cancer Relief UK. Instead he took thousands of pounds from the collections to fund a lavish lifestyle.

So how can you spot a charity conman?


The scam

According to a report in the Daily Mail, Liverpool Crown Court heard that Polak was employed as a collector for these charities between 2007 and 2011, but he used the opportunity to steal huge sums of money from them.

He organised teams of chuggers in Speke, Ramsbottom and Failsworth. He paid them a percentage of the money raised, and was authorised to take another chunk of the money. However, he did not report properly what he was making, and instead took thousands of pounds directly from the collecting buckets.

The prosecution noted that because he did not keep proper accounts, it's impossible to tell the full sum of money that was taken from the charities, but that from what they could ascertain it was at least £213,906.83 over the course of five years. He spent the money on holidays a new car and mortgage payments.

Since the scam was uncovered in 2011, Polak has had his home repossessed, and he is expected to declare himself bankrupt.

The Liverpool Echo reported that Judge Dennis Watson QC emphasised that the case didn't just harm the individuals who thought they were giving to the charities, and the charities themselves - it will also have a wider impact on public trust and confidence. He said: "The harm to public confidence is immense. Giving to public causes will suffer immensely because of this."

Protect yourself

The charities are very keen to highlight the rarity of cases like this, and that they make up a tiny minority of charity collectors - the vast majority of who are doing the right thing for a good cause.

However, this isn't the first time in recent months we have come across a crime of this nature. Back in April we reported on the gang of bogus charity collectors who stole £26,000 from generous people in Southampton, by pretending to be collecting for Marie Curie Cancer Care.

If you are concerned about charity collections there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself. First, check the credentials of collectors. They must carry ID and documents for the charity, so check them, and make sure they are still current.

If an individual is collecting regularly, you can call the charity concerned and ask whether they have permission to collect for that particular charity in that specific place. You can also contact the local police station to check whether that collector has a licence to collect locally.

Of course, in this instance the collectors were licenced to be there, and they were employed properly by the charities concerned - the problem was that the charity employee was breaking the law.

This is highly unusual, and should not put you off making a donation. However, if you have any doubts at all, you make your donation directly - cutting out the middle-man and protecting yourself entirely. You can pay the charities online or over the phone, or visit a local charity shop and make a donation there.

We recently published a guide to checking for bogus collectors, including a section on taking care online, which is worth checking before you make a web donation.



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