Angel Trees... Legitimate or Fraud?

Updated on December 20, 2011
J.F. asks from Springdale, AR
20 answers

Ok, I know I may be opening a can of worms here, but really I am asking because I am concerned and I do want to know. I have seen the angel tree cards for years and did at one time take part in helping. That was until I watched a news show one year on how most are not what they appear to be. The news show revealed that many of these (including some run by well-known agencies) don't have any requirements for parents signing up for them. They did hidden camera investigations and showed that many families who received the gifts were driving $30,000 cars and lived in upper-class neighborhoods! Many others, although not rich, still didn't necessarily NEED the help - in other words they were like most of us middle-class americans who CAN make some sacrifices to buy our kids presents.. accept these families found an easier way - no sacrifice, just get a hand out. Aside from that extreme, I have also heard reports that the children on the cards aren't real kids, they just represent an age and gender and common interests and then the agency tries to match the gifts to a child... (in which case I wonder what worker at the agency makes the decision to put those top-dollar requests on there?!) Even before hearing these kinds of things I was already beginning to feel a little strange about taking part in the angel trees. The requests always seem so outrageous. There ARE children out there, right in your own town even, that would be thrilled just to get a pair of socks so their feet don't hurt every day - and kids who can't go to school because they don't have any shoes. I always tried to look for the cards that had those kind of requests on them.. but the year I couldn't find a single one, I stopped doing it. I understand wanting to get a child a toy on top of the necessities, but $300 gaming systems... really?! My kids don't even get that! Why? Because we can't afford it.. does that mean I should sign up for my kids to receive angel tree gifts?! The extravagance for those supposedly in dire need is just hard to justify in my opinion when I see children suffering across the globe, starving and truly in dire need of help. Ok, I'll get off my soap box before I make anyone mad (too late I know). On that point, let me be clear that I'm not saying that every person who has ever received angel tree help didn't deserve it. I know many really need the help and appreciate it. SO, my questions though are: 1. Does anyone have experience BEHIND THE SCENES in any angel trees that can testify to their validity (if so, which ones)? 2. Does anyone choose to go a different route during Christmas time to make sure they are truly helping children who need it, and if so, what does your family do?

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So What Happened?

Wow, thank you for all the responses! I had no idea that there were SO many agencies out there using the term "Angel Tree". Let me say I was in no way talking about foster kids - that's an obvious need for them. It seems that this stuff VARIES GREATLY from city to city and state to state. The ones I was thinking of are not for foster kids or elderly at all. I am shocked by those who say it's not my place to judge whether they need or not - it's MY money. Of course it's my place to consider. This is one of the only times I will judge the situation and be discerning. For those of you who don't care whether people really need it or not, then please allow me to send you my address and you can provide Christmas for my kids this year. lol I guess it comes down to a priority issue to me personally.. which is moral for me. Sherry - you said "How do you know the people driving the $30000 car didn't lose their job and are hanging on by a thread." point is that to me - that is NOT hanging on by a thread. They have the ability to downgrade that expensive vehicle so they can buy food and presents. Those who were already driving $5000 junkers do not have that option. And to Julie R whose kid got the gaming system from a police officer - you said, "I was too busy worrying about how I was going to feed them to worry about such things" - that's exactly my point - wouldn't it have been more helpful if he had bought you food for a couple months? But at least in your situation, he knew you personally. I guess I'm just shocked that people actually place these material things over basic life necesseties. One day in this country we are going to see malnourished kids looking like the starving African kids only these in America will be playing $300 games and riding in $300000 vehicles because their parents refuse to get rid of those things to buy food. That is beyond sad to me.. and I just don't get it. Ok, I'm done. Go ahead and bash me. lol BTW, for all you who gave some ideas for charities, thank you. We are not a family who doesn't help and is looking to start. We already have several charities that we help with both here and abroad. I was mainly very curious to hear people's opinions on this topic and I have to sadly say, my eyes have been opened to what is truly important to many in our society.

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answers from Anchorage on

I don't think that the people on the Angle tree are scamming anyone, but they don't necessarily need help either. I found out after the fact (when the presents were delivered) that my kids had been placed on the Angle tree. I was mad because we did not need help and I felt it took away from someone who really could have used the help. Someone put my name on the tree because my Children's father was deployed with the military. I stopped doing it after that because I always wondered how many actually needed help, and how many had their name put on by someone else who felt sorry for them for some reason when they really do not need the help at all.

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answers from Chicago on

In the town I live in all the churches and social service agencies work together. no family is listed in more than one place as it is called Holiday Hopes and you sign up through your own church / social service agency and then a tag is put on a tree and someone will buy for you / your family.

I am going to sound harsh here but it sounds to me like you are very judgemental about who you perceive as needing help. How do you know that the person driving a $30,000 car didn't loose their job 6 months ago and are hanging on by a thread? maybe they are living in the car. Did you know that some people receiving help do not have homes. the notes in their files say things like lives on corner of "X" and "X". how do you know that the person who lives in the big fancy house's wife didn't just dye of cancer and the bills are overwhelming. How do you know that the person who's name is on the tree has their name all over town? You can't judge a book by its cover. If you had a bad experience thats not a good thing but it doesn't mean that it is bad everywhere or that the people who need help are trying to scam. Children who's names are on the list are sometimes asked by social worker's what they would like for christmas. Maybe 2 years ago their family made a hundred grand a year. then the bottom fell out and no one has a job. should they sell their car and video game equipment? chances are they don't have cable any more. that game is the only thing they have to do.

Yes I have worked with the angel tree program and years ago my family was recipients of gifts from the angel tree program. we lived in a big fancy house. we drove semi new cars. and my daughter had been hospitalized off and on for more than 18 months. my younger children would not have had any christmas at all without those gifts. if someone like you had judged they wouldn't have gotten one at all.

So now I am off my soap box. This is a hot topic for me.

9 moms found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

I give, because I believe it's my human duty to help others. It's not my job to pre-judge whether or not the stranger behind the card, deserves it or not. That's like saying I won't give to the homeless, because they are just going to turn around and buy drugs. I give to give, and leave the judgment at the door. Just the way I look at it, I don't expect everyone to agree.

Yes, I worked at an angel tree. Yes, the people who signed up had nothing, and it was verified. I would have given if it wasn't verified.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Oklahoma City on

At the Salvation Army the person filling out the paper work had to almost give blood to prove their income and meet all the requirements. In this town even the food banks are cracking down and making everyone prove citizenship, residency, income, family relationships, etc.... They are really trying to make sure that the families being served are US citizens and are low income.

Several of my friends that are receiving assistance this year live in really nice houses and drive really nice cars. They have zero income right now though.

One of my friends sent her hubby off to college to get a degree but to also get financial aid so they won't lose their house. With the financial aid award they can make their house payment for almost 6 months in advance after all his school is paid up. She has MS and cannot work. She is home schooling the kids because their private school would not even consider helping them with a scholarship and she just does not feel that the public schools in her area are very good.

My husband couldn't find his SSDI letter and just basically decided to not go fill out the paperwork to get the kids names on the trees this year.

The girl would have put a DSI lite, a La La Loopsy Doll, a Secret Diary, and an MP3 Player. These are things she has wanted for a very very long time and we cannot afford to buy her...the secret diary we found in the return basket at Walmart, it was the only one within 100 miles of us. The La La Loopsy doll is bought too. The other stuff is not going to happen this year and likely not any year.

The boy would have put a 16" bike, a La La Loopsy Pirate doll, a remote control car, and some hot wheels stuff. He had on his list last year a 16" bike and they bought him a 12" one. He rode it but looked like an adult riding a trike. The bike was bought at Walmart and I tried to exchange it and they do not exchange bikes. Once they go out the door they are yours and considered to be used and un-sellable. I argued with the store manager and even wrote an email to Bentonville, it still had the plastic wrap on the wheels and the tags still on it. I explained it was just too small but we were stuck. He got it from Santa anyway. So now he needs a bike in a real way.

The things I let the kids put on the wish list are things we would never be able to get for them. The DSI's are one of those things they can keep wishing for because I have to buy groceries and other things. We bought some stuff for the kids but knowing that they are going to be disappointed on Christmas morning is more than I can take.

It would have been such a blessing to have that cushion the Angel Tree would have provided. It has been a tough year and the kids deserve to have some happiness. As it is I imagine I am going to go to the pawn shop one day this week to borrow money to buy a 16" bike and whatever else we give them like stocking stuffers and such.

So, to make a short response even longer...sorry about the length, I think if you decide to pick an angel off the tree that you should try and get them the best item you can off that list. It is something they dream about.

They have socks and gloves and underwear. They need to have a little hope and joy. If you can't afford to spend much then pick an angel that lists things within your budget but don't take one that has expensive toys and items you don't think they deserve and get them clothes or a lesser item. It kind of steals the opportunity for someone who can afford it to give those gifts.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Phoenix on

My office is adopting a family through a local organization. I was actually the person who called looking into the different programs. The one that I chose actually misunderstood my request when I asked about the program and started telling me about the application process to qualify for gifts, so I got a pretty good picture of their process. This particular organization helps children in crisis situations, foster care, protective custody, shelters, etc. I have absolutely no doubt that the family we are giving to needs our help. If you have misgivings, I would look into local organizations rather than the big national ones. That way you can actually go to the facility. Some even allow you to make the delivery of gifts. We have a local hospital that runs a program like that. You can also google "charity score card" and the organization you are looking into- you can find out about the percentage of donations that goes to admin costs and other "stats."

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

When my son was at Minnieland Daycare they had an angel tree for the Woman's shelter. They got a list of names of kids and 3 gifts. Each kid was then given a number by the social worker. What we saw were little stars that said 'Boy #1234, coat size 10' . Each family was asked to pick one item to donate. You then wrote 'boy 1234 on the outside of the package. A few days before Christmas the gifts were taken to the social worker to be matched up. Families could aslo donate gift cards that would be used to buy gifts in case some kids weren't chosen, or one got 3 and one only got one....

My company works with a homeless shelter. We boxed up gift boxes with toiletries, hats, gloves, toys if for a kid. The boxes were delivered to the shelter and will be passed out around Christmas eve.

I chose 2 kids on the angel tree this year. Each were about the same ages of my kids. I did NOT chose the ones that wanted Wii games, Ipods, etc. I chose a little girl that wanted a doll and stroller and a pre-teen that wanted a curling iron and pajamas. We also got them both a new coat, hat and gloves.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Little Rock on

I asked a similar question, and almost got burned alive. ;) I say do whatever is in your heart. If a kids gets your gift and really didn't need it, is that the worst thing in the world that could happen? Probably not. I would rather help a local child that I know needs it, instead of giving to a complete stranger. I also do the senior trees. It's a terrible sad shame that the older folks get overlooked because they have no living relatives.
My advice about the negative folks is to pray for them! You can't change a stone, but you can choose to not let them sway you. Good luck!

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Fargo on

I can't speak for larger cities, but in our towns it is legit. The Angel Tree is run by the Women of Today, and the recipients are often in more need than we know.
Often, the gifts are delivered to homes that have no heat and no water. I don't really care if some people scam the system. If I worried too much about those few, then I would be missing out on helping the great many who are in need.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Salinas on

Second vote for the Salvation Army. I have never heard of an angel tree. We adopted a family this year through the Salvation Army, they take "their neediest families" for the program.
You get the names, ages and two toy requests for each child. We got a gift card for fresh food and a few bags of dry staples, the toys on the list, a couple board games/art stuff, jackets for each kid and stockings with candy and practical stuff like fun socks, gloves and books. We also did some household items like a throw blanket, candles and cookie mix.
I have no doubt at all that this family was in need, the girls asked for dolls and barbies, very modest wishes. I totally trust the salvation army and while I don't know about the angel tree, I would be very surprised if there is rampant fraud when it comes to these thypes of charity.
Our whole family got into the shopping and getting the most for our money. We are having a more scaled down Christmas ourselves and everyone loved the idea of helping out in a more personal way this year. The need is so great right now, more people, kids, than ever are hungry, homeless and otherwise going without as this horrible American downturn drags on. What ever you can give would be very appreciated I'm sure. Just find the organization you feel comfortable with and give what you can afford. Christmas is about love and sharing and I truly beleive that MOST people would never take advantage of that.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Cleveland on

I am a foster parent, and my kids have been on the receiving end of angel tree gifts in the past, so I know that at least SOME of them are legit. If you are concerned and really want to make sure, there are a few things you can do instead of just grabbing a card off a tree at a mall. Contact a nursing home, elementary school, church, or your county Children's Services Agency and ask them about helping out children/families/the elderly in need. They will be able to help you out from there. Also, don't forget about Toys for Tots! Great organization!

Also, I would like to agree with Julie below. We can't be judgemental when we don't know the whole story. I remember when I was a little kid when cable tv was just moving into the area. It was super expensive back then, and I remember a family from our church that was receiving food assistance also had cable. I remember hearing a lot of the parents talking about how they needed to get their priorities straight, and how they clearly weren't as bad off as everyone thought, blah blah blah. It turns out that a family member paid for them to have cable tv for a year because the family had to pull their kids out of sports and dance classes, etc, due to lack of money. These people were flat broke, but people were so judgemental of them with no clue what the real story was.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Atlanta on

I only do Angel Tree kids through the Salvation Army and our congregation that does one for refugees and it's all clothing and household supplies. I have a strict policy that I don't ever buy video games like Wii or XBox when on the lists. I will get anything else, but if you can afford a gaming system, then I don't think you really need my help that much. If it's a kid asking, well his parents need to learn some priorities.

***J. R -I'm so happy that you're one of the rare few who were in a situation where someone gave your kid a Playstation, etc., but most of these people with $40-$60 games on their lists are the same folks who could pay for their kids' school lunches if they didn't pay $80 a month for nails. I pass too many projects on my way to work every morning that have Dish satellites outside and see too many parents with kids who fit this profile at my son's school to throw $40-$60 away on some video game that is in no way shape or form a "need." I give toys, clothes, shoes and winter coats, but I would venture to say that 98% of the video game requests come from kids whose parents bought a Wii or XBox 360 instead of spending their money where they should. I've seen 6 different video game requests from one charity here in Atlanta, and I don't even think the child was the one "requesting." The games requested were BEYOND inappropriate for their age, and I highly doubt they would have even known about these games at their ages.

As far as not being judgmental about what we're giving -WHAT? Damn straight I'll be judgmental about where and how I spend my money. I give A LOT to family and children's charitable organizations this time of year, but I will certainly use discretion and JUDGEMENT about it -just as I would if I couldn't make ends meet and a family member offered to pay for our cable. "Thanks, but it would be more helpful if you could pay for ballet classes or groceries or our gas bill..."

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answers from New York on

I do it thru my church, members of my church work in an inner city school and know the kids. The school where I work also has a program and most of the kids ask for very reasonable things. Don't give up on the idea of Angel Trees, just find one you can trust. Or give generously to Food bank, homeless shelter, or women's shelter instead

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answers from Dallas on

I looked at two angel trees this year; one through the Salvation Army and another through some other charity. The other charity had the majority of tags asking for gaming systems, not games, systems. They were asking for things my kids didn't even ask for because they knew it was too much, just left a bad taste in my mouth. The Salvation Army tree near us listed a want, a need, and then gave clothing sizes. We picked two kids near our kids ages and, because the 'wants' were reasonable, were able to get the kids their wants, needs, extra clothes, and jackets. So because they were modest in their requests they got a lot more. I wholeheartedly agree with giving at Christmas, but there's no reason a lesson in gratitude can't be imparted at the same time :)

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answers from Washington DC on

My church's Giving/Angel tree is absolutely legit. The families are screened by a local community service center and chosen based on need. Requests run from a gallon of milk to a warm shirt to an art set. Reasonable things. I brought the gifts to the center last year for the families to pick up and spoke to one of the recipient families. This community center is a pretty tightly run ship and I had no doubt that the families qualified for the aid.

You could also pick a charity like Child's Play where the gifts go to kids IN the hospital and some are for the hospital itself to support kids year round.

Or you could buy a family in Africa a goat.

There are options.

With anything, there are those that don't deserve it and scam the system. Are they good overall? I think so. If there's any fault, it's the fault of whoever allows families to sign up when they could make different choices or the fault of whoever makes up lists for kids without matching them to a child first. It isn't the kids that are the problem there. When I was in college, I picked the kids who wanted gloves and a football. Maybe times have changed, but frankly I think if people don't fill the overly expensive wishes, then perhaps people will stop allowing them.

I agree that if you don't like one program, find another. There are many different routes to charity.

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answers from Houston on

That is exactly the reason that our family does the Angel Tree for the nursing home. The ones for the children...if they are real....some one should monitor what they put on their wish lists....and keep it in a reasonable budget. I knew of a family that had a fire...all the generous donations were coming in...that was great...cause they lost nearly everything...they lived in a rundown old trailer. An organization contacted them because it was near Christmas...getting a written list from each child. The requests were so out of question....I knew the mother and talking to her about her childrens requests...the 17 year old boy wanted a computer....the 2 teenage girls wanted cell phones...the 9 yo boy wanted an electric scooter....even the old grandfather with AIDS that lived there wanted a police scanner. No time in any of their lives had they ever had any of the above items. Mothers doesn't do any harm to try. Needless to say...NONE of them got anything they asked for...most all of them got clothes ....and only a couple of toys for the little boy. So people will take advantage if given an opportunity.

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answers from Las Vegas on

My cousin fosters and she can sign all of her kids up for a donation gift. All of them is, her fostered children, her adopted children, and her natural child. I don't know where the gift comes from, but I will bet it is a donation from an angel tree. At the time, she had 3 vehicles, a new minivan, a nice tahoe with chrome wheels, and her husbands slammed Dodge truck. They make things work for themselves. They buy things when the price is right, they buy used, they buy new from thrift stores, they have and visit yard sales, and anything else to make things work for the kids.

One year my husbands friend pulled a name and the child asked for a Nintendo (or something). He couldn't afford the game, but my husband had one and sent the works to him, games and all.

As well, when I worked for a dealership they pulled a family and everyone pitched in and bought everything on the list. They delivered the gifts directly to the family at their unfurnished apartment. They said they were very excited. No $30K car there.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

We have always tried to participate in these programs in the past by providing a gift to a needy child. Although I must admit, VM's post a short time ago about the Wii game started me thinking... My own children do not have a Wii so then the wheels started needy is this child? The whole thought process just feels crummy.

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answers from Minneapolis on

Like anything that involves money, there is a potential for graft. And yes, there are many programs (not all) where it is actually social workers or program volunteers or organizers that are preparing the gift lists and angel tags that request specific and very expensive gifts for a certain or gendered child. You can usually tell these programs from the others because they will ask that you don't wrap the presents. They do this so they can create storehouse/warehouse of gifts and then match these gifts to families as needed. Some programs will let the families "shop" for the gifts and wrap them themselves. Others will match gifts to families.

A relative of mine worked as such a volunteer on an angel tree project, and was shocked to find this out. He always thought there were actual children, elderly people etc. asking for these specific gifts. Instead he told me the volunteers at this particular program he worked with would make recommendations for the angel tags based on what items were advertised as popular for the holidays. Requests for electronics and other high buck items was pretty much the norm. He also found out that there was no criteria set for those receiving the gifts, and that led to grifting.

And yes, many people who didn't need these things were getting them or worse, people were misusing the program to make a profit on Ebay or were getting extra presents for family and friends who weren't in the program at all and didn't need them, especially for hard to find and popular items that may have already sold at stores.

In case you're wondering, this person I know never volunteered nor donated again after finding this out. They said in their own words "it's a scam," and the church which hosted the angel tree for a local charity is now planning on making this year the last year to host the program because of all of the dishonesty etc. with the donations.

Like I said, this is one person's perception and experience. I trust this person and was really sad to learn this. I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas shopping for what I thought were real children in need. I was crushed to find out these children didn't exist per se...and even more upset my gifts were just tossed in a pool of gifts after I spent hours agonizing over getting the exact thing this supposed child was dreaming of for Christmas. I was even more crushed to find out that the potential was very high that someone who didn't need my gifts at all was getting them and it was very likely it was going to be sold on Ebay for a profit on someone's online store from home!! I felt betrayed and lied to because the program purported to be something it wasn't. I finally just decided I'll reserve charity for programs I think I can trust and especially for those already in my midst who I see day to day, who may have a need. Why does charity have to entail a high buck gaming system all the time? Charity is also a kind word, picking up the lunch tab, solid advice or consolation for someone going through a tough time. Sometimes these intangible things are more powerful than money. Especially prayer.

I think it's a wake up call to be watchful and discerning about where you put your money. It just sounds like there is very poor criteria and steps in place to cut down on misuse of the program. Sad.

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answers from Kansas City on

Our church participates in something called the Red Bag program. If you "adopt" a red bag, you're purchasing gifts for a child who is in foster care. You receive the child's name, gender, age and wish list...many put clothing and other necessities and maybe a non-essential gift or two on their list. I'm familiar with the angel trees, but don't know much about them. Honestly I thought it had something to do with the Salvation Army and I thought, don't know, but thought they had a pretty good screening process for determining need. It's so tough right now. Even people who don't appear to need help, sometimes do.



answers from Fayetteville on

The schools in our district have "Angel Trees". I never hesitate to choose from them. I am a teacher there. While the names are anonymous, the teachers and counselors are the ones who determine who goes on the tree. I would only choose families that I know truly struggle. Yes, some of the requests seem over the top. But after reading some poverty books, I have learned that things like video game systems are often a priority for poverty kids...immediate gratification. I am not saying it is right or wrong, just not unusual. I usually only choose angels that are asking for more traditional gifts (dolls, cars, puzzles, books, etc) and are in my price range.

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