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Some fear charity's gifts may be a danger

Advocates for the elderly and some authorities worry the miniature license plates might enable thieves.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000


Each month, a non-profit group for troubled children mails thousands of older Florida drivers a letter asking for donations along with a small gift -- a key chain with a miniature version of their license plate.

The idea is that if people lose their keys, whoever finds them will take it to the nearest Sheriff's Office to be returned.

But some police and elderly affairs advocates worry that a would-be thief could use a lost key chain to steal a car, and possibly even burglarize a house using personal information in the car.

"I think this is a terrible idea," said Gabrielle Wiechec, senior victim advocate with the Area Agency on Aging. "I wish they would stay away from fundraisers like that. Why don't they spend the money on something else?"

Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches officials acknowledge that they have had people return the key chain or call to complain about the program that nets the group $50,000 in profit and 25,000 new donors each year.

"That's the No. 1 concern that I've heard," said Travis Granthan, the group's director of financial development. "It's a legitimate concern. I have to be honest when I say it could happen."

The rate of car thefts continues to rise in the Tampa Bay area as numbers decline in Florida and across the nation. But still Florida ranks second in the nation, and Pinellas County is eighth in the state behind top-ranked Miami-Dade and fourth-ranked Hillsborough.

The Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches has mailed key chains to about 3.5-million Floridians, 55 years or older, in the past seven years. The group uses a list provided free by the Division of Motor Vehicles of drivers who have recently renewed their license plates.

It spends about $350,000 a year on the program, and receives about $400,000 in donations -- which means less than 13 percent of what's collected actually goes to support the six camps around the state for troubled children.

"(The key chain program) certainly has some benefits," said Officer Greg Stewart, who deals with crime prevention at the Clearwater Police Department, "but I'd personally have some apprehension about sticking it on my key chain."

The key chain comes with a standard letter signed by each county's sheriff.

"As Sheriff, I'm writing to share some important information with you about a program that provides a critically needed service to residents of our county," a letter signed by Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice says. "Additionally, it offers you and me the opportunity to support a very worthwhile organization that has truly become Florida's charity for Florida's children."

Rice said when the program first started, there were some people concerned about thefts. But he said he doesn't know that any have actually occurred.

"Most thieves aren't that sophisticated," he said. "I just don't think the risk of that happening outweighs the benefit."

Granthan recommends that those who are worried about thefts carry the key chain separate from their keys so they could at least have easy reference to the tag number if they need it. But he said most calls he receives are from people complimenting the program and those who want to request another key chain.

Some police officials say the key chains serve a purpose, and that they have mixed feelings about them.

"You can find holes in anything," said Rick Stelljes, spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department. "If someone wants to get you, they're going to anyway."

-- Anita Kumar covers consumer issues. She can be contacted at (727) 893-8472 or at kumar@sptimes.com.

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