You've likely seen those boxes full of candy at area stores and restaurants, with pictures of children or animals, asking for your change. The News4 I-Team found many of them are not charities but actually for-profit businesses.
Montgomery County, Maryland, is warning businesses and consumers to be on the lookout for the containers.
"As far as we can tell, it's really just a sweet way to try and make some money by misleading consumers and businesses," said Eric Friedman of the Office of Consumer Protection.
His office recently got complaints about boxes that popped up with pictures of two puppies, Friedman said. The heading on the box says "Please read before purchasing candy!" It goes on to explain the goal is "to help find missing pets and to find loving homes," even listing a website as a public service. But in the middle of the paragraph it also states "this is not a charity" and "the sales of this candy help compensate the owner for his time and expenses."
"It's pulling you in with that photograph, but what's crazy about it is that the box screams charity and then whispers, 'Oh, but it’s not,'" Friedman said.
The I-Team spent days crisscrossing the county and found the same candy boxes in yogurt shops, a spa, a tanning salon and even a county-run liquor store.
Most store employees said they knew very little about the person behind the bins, which belong to a Gaithersburg man. The I-Team stopped by his home and called him multiple times but never heard back.
But the county has met with him.
"The person who purchased these boxes from another company in another state thought that he was making an investment, as far as we can tell, and he thought as long as all the details were buried in the words on the box that it was not in fact misleading," said Friedman.
But the boxes are misleading and may violate the consumer protection law, Friedman said.
The county is not taking action against the man now, instead alerting businesses and customers to address the matter. The I-Team found many stores removed the boxes, including that county store. But Friedman said they want to hear from anyone who has spotted other boxes like them. And he noted state law requires actual charitable donation containers to disclose the name and address of the organization on them.
The I-Team wanted to see how often people would donate money without actually reading what's on the box. So we set up our own in a Rockville store with permission from the county.
Underneath the picture of the little boy it read: "This is provided as a public service. The goal is to find out if people who are solicited to make a donation to this box actually read what the fine print says and understands that THIS IS NOT A CHARITY, but in instead, an experiment by NBC Washington. All money donated here will be given right back to the person who made the donation. For more information please go to our website, www.nbcwashington.com/investigations."
Our box quickly caught the eye of customers like Darnell and Dipu. Both said the picture drew them in.
"The kid in the front. You know I always like to help kids out. I mean I got kids of my own," Darnell said.
"I just saw the face of the kid and I saw the candy and thought, 'It's 25 cents.' Well, I'll give it to my boy," Dipu explained.
Another customer, Allison, said her daughter made her drop in some change. In the end, the I-Team gave them all their money back, along with some of the candy.
Experts say if you do want to donate any kind of money, it's best to give directly to the charity. Find more advice about charities here.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.