Friday, January 15, 2010

Americans Text 90999 to Aid Earthquake Victims of American people have pledged $ 9 million to Haitian relief agencies this week by typing HAITI and send to 90999 via their cellphone. This effort was initiated by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CNN and Twitter user. But the money won’t be routed from most U.S. wireless carriers to relief efforts until cellphone users pay their phone bills.

That could take 30 to 90 days, telecommunications officials estimate, well after the critical initial days in which humanitarian aid organizations are trying to deliver medical supplies, food and water to save injured earthquake victims and help others with their most immediate needs. The needs for money and supplies are staggering, disaster relief experts say, following Tuesday’s earthquake that struck close to the capital city of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

Following questions about the lag time, Verizon Wireless said late Friday that it planned to go ahead and send nearly $3 million customers have pledged to the American Red Cross, and that it would continue to advance funds as pledges come in.

The wildfire-like popularity of the program—and the resulting delay in moving the money—highlights both the power and limitations of increasingly popular social-network and text-messaging technologies. In effect, pledging $10 via text-messaging ends up yielding actual money as fast as an old-school telethon pledge drive that needed to wait for an actual check to arrive.

Nearly a dozen text-messaging programs have popped up nearly overnight, including ones that send money to relief operations operated by the Red Cross and singer Wyclef Jean. The Red Cross program has become one of the most popular efforts.

Wireless companies are touting the role they have played. On his Twitter feed, Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson wrote Friday, “Mobile customers have already given $8 million by texting HAITI to 90999. It’s a new paradigm in charity giving!”

But they acknowledge that they can’t easily “front” the money, before customers pay their bills. Mr. Nelson and Jeannie Hornung, a spokeswoman for AT&T Inc., said their companies are trying to find a solution. AT&T wasn’t immediately available to comment on whether it also plans to front pledges.

Wireless companies are working with at least two operations, called the Mobile Giving Foundation in Bellevue, Wash., and the mGive Foundation in Denver. The concept for the programs is similar to that of buying cell-phone ringtones or coupons. The proliferation of social networks and text-messaging helped spur this week’s pledging. A spokeswoman for mGive confirmed that delays can occur. Mobile Giving wasn’t available to comment.

In a texting donation, a person types a so-called short-code such as 90999 and then types in “HAITI” to donate a preset amount of $10. The cellphone user then gets a text back asking that they confirm the donation. After a confirmation, the person receives a text saying, “Thanks! $10 charged to your phone bill for Red Cross Int’l Relief.”

But no money moves until a person pays their cellphone bill to cover the pledge. The money then is routed through a carrier that aggregates the donations before dispatching them to one of the foundations. Those then move the money to agencies such as the Red Cross.

Meantime, officials warned that hundreds of charities that may not be equipped to help often try to raise money and others are simply fraudulent scams. The Federal Bureau of Investigation warned Americans to ignore unsolicited emails and to be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as surviving victims.

Corporations, too, rushed to send millions of dollars in aid and supplies. U.S. companies pledged more than $43 million within the first 72 hours after the Tuesday quake, said Stephen Jordan, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Business Civic Leadership Center. Twenty-two firms had pledged $1 million of assistance or more as of Friday afternoon, the chamber said. Other companies pledged money, water services, clothing, medicine and engineers to repair the country’s battered infrastructure. Logistical problems, including airport access, complicated efforts.

Coca-Cola Co. is donating $1 million to the American Red Cross and said it will provide water and other drinks through its bottler in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

The PepsiCo Foundation said it will give $1 million to the relief effort and would allocate bottled water and Gatorade to disaster victims through its bottlers in Florida and the Dominican Republic.

Separately, investor George Soros pledged $4 million to the relief effort.

Nestlé Waters North America pledged $1 million in bottled water products, most of which will also be shipped over from nearby islands in the Caribbean.Meantim

Procter Gamble Co., working with several humanitarian relief agencies to donate funds and supplies, said its initial shipments of PUR water-purification powder packets arrived in Haiti yesterday, said spokeswoman Rotha Penn.

Write to Carrick Mollenkamp at

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