When does a ‘No Junk Mail’ sign cease to be a ‘No Junk Mail’ sign? The answer, in the Dublin estate in which I live, appears to be when the person at your letterbox is dropping in a clothing collection sticker.
Over the last five months I have received no less than 11 of these, duplicates excluded. These brightly coloured stickers try their hardest to pull at your heartstrings with their holier-than-thou messages. Less saintly, however, are the hours at which they arrive, each having being delivered between midnight and 6am. Based on the result of a joint investigation carried out over the last number of months, the strange hours at which contact is first made may just be indicative of a deep desire to avoid coming face-to-face with their kind-hearted targets.
In the years prior to the investigation, I received these stickers in dribs and drabs, always figuring them to be less than genuine. Truth be told, their arrival would often be met by a smile as I picked apart their horrendous grammar mistakes and their comedy-like pseudo-charity uttering. As the years passed, however, the human consequences of these collections started to become more and more real as I began to read about how long-standing Irish charities were being hit, and hit hard.
The last resort of many in the current recession is charitable organisations. When the money is gone it is they, rather than Government, who help to keep food on the table and clothes on the backs of society’s most vulnerable. For this to happen, they rely on the goodwill of a public whose charitable leanings aren’t manipulated, thus ensuring that their generosity reaches the correct recipient.
According to Jim Walsh, spokesman for the St. Vincent de Paul, the goodwill which these charities have long since relied on are being challenged on 3 fronts: by shops which now offer cash for clothing, theft from clothes banks, and the proliferation of bogus door-to-door ‘charity’ collections.
David Allen of The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland knows of many charities in addition to his own and SVP, such as Enable Ireland and Focus Ireland, which depend on second hand clothing to help keep them going. On a recent call he stated how the excessive dropping of bogus clothing collection stickers in the Bray area of County Wicklow had greatly affected donations to the MS Ireland shop located there.
It can be argued that the clothes-for-cash charity shops can actually help those who find themselves with more clothes than disposable income to help themselves. At the same time, while those who rob from clothes banks may be viewed as the lowest of the low, at least they make no attempt to gloss over the criminal nature of their act. Underhanded clothes collectors, on the other hand, thrive on their use of ambiguous, emotive language to trick and deceive. It’s ironic that if they had just abided by the sign on my front door, I would never have pursued them for answers. But they didn’t, so I did.
Of the 11 stickers, the amount of useful information on them varied greatly, with many offering only an email address and/or a phone number, none of which were responded to or answered. Others provided enough to do a bit of digging, and so we dug.
Arriving just two days after Christmas of last year, an ‘African Appeal’ clothing collection sticker arrived, which listed exactly what they wanted, namely clothing, in addition to what they didn’t. Listing a number of waste collection permits as well as contact information, they spoke of wanting to save lives.
With no number from the Companies Registration Office (CRO) listed, perhaps their website, www.clothescollection.eu might provide something more concrete? This was not to be, with the page providing little more than a listings page offering links to things as diverse as Sky TV to a quit smoking website.
Arriving on the 14/11/11, 15/01/12, and again on the 29/01/12 were collection stickers bearing the international symbol for breast cancer awareness, the pink ribbon. Receiving three of the same clothing collection sticker in a month and a half pointed to a scattergun approach which was suspicious in itself, but it didn’t end there.
Although missing a CRO number once again, a more authentic looking website existed at www.donotdelay.org, an all-English website which only lists cancer rates from Lithuania. The Lithuanian link continued, as the ‘authorised stock collector’ listed on both the clothing sticker and the website, Intersecond Ltd, work as agents for Azzara, a Lithuanian company.
With one office in England and two in Northern Ireland, a phonecall to the UK office of Intersecond Ltd shed some more light on the story. Their representative confirmed that the website printed on the sticker was genuine but failed to see what it would be doing on a clothing sticker delivered to a house in the Republic of Ireland, as they do not carry out collections here.
Closer to home was a clothing collection sticker which I also received in triplicate (above). Its CRO number linked it to a company in Cork with the less-than-Irish sounding name of ‘Aukuras Credence Limited’ (Aukuras is, surprise, surprise, Lithuanian for Altar). The registered address was a house in a residential estate in Douglas in Cork, containing both the director and secretary of the company, a Jurate Ronkiene and Mindaugas Ronkys respectively.
The website listed on the sticker, www.acredence.com is invalid, but had once been registered by another company from Cork called Simply Sites. Attempting to visit their website, http://www.simplysites.ie brings up a browser warning stating that the site contains malware, short for malicious software, and the type of thing that gives computers viruses. End of the road.
The Lithuanian connection was present once again with a sticker titled ‘Clothing Footwear Collecting Project’, which listed the currently inactive website www.viltis.eu, which was registered in Lithuania. The email address provided by the person who registered the site was available, however, and pointed to a Lithuanian company with a website at www.forestvila.lt. Using Google translate, the company appears to be involved in ‘forestry and wood fuel production’, a far cry from what the clothing collection sticker that I received was purporting to offer.
Telling me that they wanted to offer support ‘for children and their parents who live in poverty’ was a sticker which listed a CRO number one digit-too long. Attempting to clear up what could be seen as a convenient typo was made impossible by the invalid phone number which accompanied it.
Three clothing collections, however, had the potential to give us the face-to-face contact its operators would much rather avoid. With CRO numbers which threw up addresses in the greater Dublin area, we set off with the holy trinity of investigative materials in our grasp: evidence, Dictaphone, and a telephoto lens.
The beach view (above) belonged, according to the CRO number, to a company called ‘Pragmatic Software Limited’, which had been dissolved in the year 2000, more than a decade before the clothing sticker bearing its number had been dropped through my letterbox. Attempts to clear this up via phone were met with an invalid number, so off we went to its registered address, an apartment in Dublin 8.
Attempts to buzz the occupants of the apartment in question proved unsuccessful with no-one picking up. With what was most likely an incorrect CRO number leading us to the registered address of a company long since out of business, this trip was never likely to uncover much.
Next on the list was a company called ‘Hand Collection Service Ltd’ whose CRO number matched that on the sticker. With its promise to help everyone from the disabled, orphaned, and homeless through to the elderly, we were eager to meet these modern-day miracle workers.
One of its two directors had an address in Harold’s Cross, Dublin 6. Having been dissolved on the 13/01/12, I had received the second of these two stickers on the 05/02/12, nearly a month later. We found the website www.orphanhomecare.org to be similar to the website www.clothescollection.eu, which also offered little more than a collection of ads that are completely unrelated to the people the sticker claims to help.
Lo and behold that on arrival at the address, the knocks of my co-reporter Neil McCann (above) went unanswered.
The final and most fruitful step on our journey brought us to a house in Clonee, Dublin 15, which company records stated contained an Audrius Ropas and Antanas Kerge, the director and secretary, respectively, of a company called ‘New Life Clothing Limited’. The website listed on the clothing sticker was also registered to Antanas Kerge, and displays an ‘account suspended’ notice. Company records had also shown that the company was due to be struck off due to the non-filing of accounts since the company’s incorporation on the 22/06/2009.
Having talked with the current occupant of the house – a young Dublin woman in her early 30s who had lived there for the last two years – it became clear that she didn’t recognise any of the names I mentioned.
And so it was over. Having delved into the world of clothing collection stickers, not one had appeared to be legitimate. Having finished up our investigation by finally making contact with someone at an address listed by a clothing collection company (New Life Clothing Limited), we were puzzled. How could this not be the address? Having contacted the CRO directly with this question, we were shocked to discover that neither evidence of identity nor of address of residence is required when registering a company.
At a time when more and more people find themselves reliant on charitable organisations in Ireland, the onus is on each and every person who tries to help them to not be duped or manipulated into letting them down at the benefit of the profiteers. While the well-worn Latin phrase ‘caveat emptor’ alerts us to ‘let the buyer beware’, we need to become familiar with another piece of advice – ‘let the charity-giver beware’.