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Bobby Maszak just wanted to do a good deed for a relative, but a simple online request for a Christmas tree donation went in directions he probably didn’t anticipate, and the result might be a cautionary tale for us all.

Maszak posted a message on a local Facebook group Friday, Dec. 12, asking if anyone had a spare Christmas tree. He planned to give it to a Homewood family with three children. The family is struggling financially, and the father told Maszak he didn’t think they could afford a tree this year.

This is the season of giving, and people who heard his call heeded his call. In fact, they exceeded his call, bringing other donations, including gift cards, to the address he provided. 

Strangely, that’s when this heart-warming story begins to go sour. 

Some of the gifts reportedly were not picked up quickly, the weather got rainy, gifts got soaked, and some givers began to wonder about the situation and to question whether the charity request was legitimate. 

This is also the season of scamming. It’s a sad truth that the season’s increase in generosity provides opportunities for the deceitful. People give, but they have learned to be cautious, too.

Monya Meinel, who manages the Facebook group Moms & Dads of Homewood-Flossmoor, received word that the police had been contacted to report a possible scam. Concerned that group members could be taken advantage of, she posted a notice warning members.

The ensuing discussion was filled with expressions of disappointment and outrage about the possible scam, but they were soon followed by defenses of Maszak, a member of the community for nearly four decades, who many people felt would not knowingly take advantage of others.

This case is an example of the collateral damage real scammers cause. They sow the seeds of distrust among neighbors.

From what I can tell, everyone involved was trying to do the right thing, and things still went awry. Giving to a struggling family is good. Warning people about a potential scam is good. And the two goods simply clashed in this case, a charity project marred by misunderstanding.

Yet some good things have come from this charity mishap. 

Maszak was understandably upset at how his effort to help was misinterpreted, but on the other hand, he also heard kind comments he might not have otherwise.

“I have been shocked at the number of people who have supported me and my wife,” he said. 

And he was very grateful for the outpouring of generosity in response to his original request and said he planned to use the gift cards to buy gifts for his nephew’s children.

Meinel, too, was frustrated with how things unfolded. I have been managing online conversations for the past 23 years, so I have a great deal of sympathy for her. It can be a difficult task, but groups like Moms & Dads of Homewood-Flossmoor are a great resource that members cherish. She was just trying to protect her people. 

It occurred to me that this case might serve as an opportunity to think about how best to help those in need any time but especially during the holiday season. Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on charity or on scams, so I’ll share a couple of ideas but invite those who know more to weigh in with corrections or improvements. 

  • If you worry about gifts being handled appropriately, it might be safer to give to established charitable organizations. I wish I had thought of it earlier, but next year I hope to create a list of local charities and how to contribute to them. Or does such a list already exist? Let me know.
  • If you are struggling and need help, seek it from established charities. They tend to have the staff and facilities to handle the situation.
  • If you want to help someone but would rather not work through a charitable organization, take some precautions. Have a place ready to accept donations. Document donations as best you can in case anyone has questions about the disposition of gifts. (Maszak only asked for a spare tree, of course, but people want to help, so the response can be unpredibable.)
  • If you suspect a scam, contact the police. They can investigate and try to determine whether your suspicions are well-founded. But a report to police is not necessarily an indication a crime has occurred.

The generosity that flows this time of year is a wonderful thing that helps many people in need. I hope this situation doesn’t make anyone reluctant to give or cause anyone to let down their guard for potential scams. We need to be both generous and vigilant, and it’s not always easy to balance the two.

Good luck to us all.

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