As a kid growing up in the Bronx during the early ‘50s, about once a month I’d hear this guy in the tenement alleyway screaming up at closed windows early in the morning, and to no one in particular—“Old clothes, any ol’ clothes to throw away?” Opening the window, I’d look down at this disheveled and unshaven old man looking pathetically back up at me, hoping I had some redeemable piece of clothing for him. My mother always got annoyed when I opened the window, making contact, because she then felt the need to give him something of worth. It could be an old pair of shoes, a housedress she no longer wore, a pair of my father’s work gloves, or even a book or two. But, she always gave the junkman something.

Some 65 years later, I often feel the need to do the same. A couple of times each year, when the seasons begin to change and it’s time to adapt to the weather, I round up the clothes that don’t really fit any more or are no longer in style, make sure that they are in good condition, and give them to a charity that accepts pre-worn clothes for resale. It makes me feel good to do this. First, I rid myself of the guilt of having an abundance of clothes to begin with; and second, I know that the clothes I’m giving away will benefit others who need them a lot more than I do.  

I get a large, clear plastic bag and start going through my pants, shirts, jackets and coats, whatever’s in reach. As I’m doing this, I start nagging my wife to do the same. However, she’s not nearly as impulsive I am. Though she’ll wind up putting several items in the bag, she prides herself on knowing which styles are likely to come back and, therefore, is significantly more careful about what she’s willing to discard.

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And when my kids visit, I appeal to them, too. Over the years, our storage room has become packed with their clothes and the clothes of their kids. Outfits and garments they’ll never wear again, but hold on to for sentimental value; clothes that were worn by their babies, who’ve now become toddlers or full-grown kids. Oh, they’ve donated loads of winter coats, pants and jackets, and dozens of pairs of shoes. But their wedding dresses still stand at attention going nowhere, and I’m sure they would bring joy to some hopeful young brides-to-be who can’t afford to buy one on their own.

I load three giant bags into the back of my Forester and head over to the nearest shopping center to deposit them into one of those brightly colored charity donation bins. You know the ones I’m talking about—6-feet-tall and 6-feet-wide metal containers with a pull-out drawer and a padlocked panel. Many have a picture of pigtailed girls and crew-cut boys smiling invitingly across the front. As I’m getting ready to stuff my overloaded bags down into the chute, I notice the small sign staring at me that says that the donated goods will go to the poor or be sold to benefit the needy.

I’m not sure I’d ever really noticed that sign before, and it just seems strange. I always assumed that that would be the case. But, now I’m also reading the one just below: “This donation box is owned by Thrift Land USA.” Hmm, let me take a few seconds and Google “Thrift Land” on my smartphone before depositing the bags. Something smells fishy here.

Well, lo and behold, Thrift Land USA is a for-profit Yonkers company that owns 1,100 of these colorfully painted donation bins and has placed them in shopping centers, parking lots, and gas stations throughout the New York metropolitan area. What’s more, it’s a scam! Sued by the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Thrift Land has paid more than $1 million in fines after making almost $15 million over the last several years selling the contents of these bins to middlemen in Mexico and several other countries.

Many of Thrift Land’s donation bins had colorful houses painted on the front with “Big Brothers, Big Sisters” or “I Love Our Youth” on the side. Thrift Land USA never registered as a charitable organization, and used both charities’ names indiscriminately, without their permission.

Thrift Land is not the only for-profit organization to run this clothing bin scam. According to the attorney general, there are other fraudulent organizations that sell the content of their clothing bins to thrift stores or in bulk to overseas vendors, and the vast majority of the profits are almost impossible to trace.

I’ve learned an important lesson here. When I wish to make a charitable donation of clothes—or anything of value—I need to give it directly to a church or synagogue; or to a Goodwill or Salvation Army store.

Goodwill is located right in the neighborhood at Somers Town Center. It has a sterling reputation as a job creator for people with disabilities and makes a significant difference in their lives. After clothes, shoes, blankets, electronics and other items are dropped off, they are refurbished and then sold in one of 3,000 Goodwill stores nationwide, or on their online auction site: shopgoodwill.com. Eighty-three percent of the revenue generated by the sale of donated stuff goes to support and grow programs that fund job training and other services for the handicapped. That’s a very significant percentage of the profits serving a truly meaningful purpose. I applaud them!