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$10 or $10,000? Error shocks telethon donors

A volunteer leaves off the decimal point when taking pledges, forcing the United Way to verify Sept. 11 donations.

©Associated Press,
published November 10, 2001

Tammy Van Dame, who pledged $100 to the celebrity telethon in September for the families of the terror victims, got a shock this week when the United Way of New York City called to verify her gift of $10,000.

"After I finished sucking in my breath, I said, 'No! No! No! It was for $100. Did you try to take $10,000 from my account?"' she recalled. To which, she said, the United Way woman replied, "Oh, no. No. No. NO!"

The woman explained that because of a computer glitch, the charity was double-checking contributions, Van Dame recalled.

The problem was a missing decimal point. And Van Dame's pledge was not the only one affected.

A phone bank volunteer left off the decimal point when taking 240 of the 1-million pledges to credit cards and other accounts, Jeanine Moss, a spokeswoman for the United Way's New York chapter, said Thursday.

Close to 60-million people watched "America: A Tribute to Heroes" when it aired Sept. 21. Pledges topped $150-million. Participants included Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Stevie Wonder.

United Way of New York City collected the money. The September 11th Fund, a spinoff organization, is distributing the donations.

Moss said all 240 people were contacted and 90 percent agreed to give again -- once any erroneous credit card charges were refunded.

She said she did not know how the error was discovered or how much the missing decimal points may have inflated the reported pledge total.

Moss said such mistakes are common during telethons, "but the volume is going to seem larger, because of the huge number of Americans who opened up their wallets."

Van Dame, a 37-year-old consultant in Virginia Beach, Va., who advises the government on managing information in a crisis, decided to withdraw her pledge.

"I'm going to choose another avenue, that I can be sure of," she said.

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