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What You Need to Know Before You Donate

Use these expert-recommended methods to find legitimate charities worthy of your support.

When the spirit of giving moves you to donate, especially during the holiday season, you want to be sure that the money or goods you give will actually go to the cause you want to support.

Most charities are legitimate, but there are some bad apples in the donation-collecting barrel, too. Some scams are easy to spot, like the well-known spam email that promises to deposit a fortune in your bank after you reply with your account information. But others can be trickier to detect.

“Scam artists are the only criminals we call ‘artists’ and with reason,” says Scamicide.com blogger Steve Weisman, a cyber security expert, attorney, author and faculty member at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. “They are very adept at what they do, and they’re able to use psychology to their end.”

Natural disasters bring out the best in people, but they also bring out the scammers, Weisman says. When Hurricane Matthew devastated Haiti and caused serious damage on the South Coast of the United States in October of 2016, many people were motivated to donate money to charities to help the survivors and the victims’ families. But as Weisman says on his blog, scammers were quick to tap that spirit of generosity by posing as charities to “steal the money for themselves under false pretenses.”

One of the biggest charity problems during the holidays is the prevalence of scams that sound like the real organization.

In 2013, after the hugely successful Ice Bucket Challenge for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) went viral, scammers seized the opportunity to piggyback on the campaign’s success by sending fraudulent “phishing” emails that appeared to be from the ALS Association. When unsuspecting donors clicked to open the attached “receipt.com,” the ALS Association reported, they unknowingly released malware capable of collecting sensitive personal information from their computers.

You could be on charity’s emailing list if you signed up for e-newsletters or updates, made donations in the past, or interacted with the organization online in other ways that granted them implied or specific permission to contact you by email (and you haven’t opted out), according to CharityNavigator.org. Nevertheless, they say, err on the safe side: Never click any links within the message and if you get an unsolicited email with an attachment, delete it.

San Francisco-based personal finance expert Erica J. Sandberg, a features reporter at CreditCards.com, received a solicitation for a police and firefighter’s fund for children in need. Although it sounded genuine, she checked it out and learned it was a fake organization that had nothing to do with the police department or a real charity.

Check before you write that check

Verify before you donate. Several good resources can help you do your homework.

Weisman likes the free website, Charity Navigator, especially for checking “legitimate charities as well as phony charities with dramatically similar names” and to find out how the collected donations are used. Even some of the legitimate charities spend the lion’s share of collections on salaries and administrative costs, and that may not be where you want your donation to go.

Sandberg thinks the United Way is “a really great source for finding out which organizations are legitimate because they house just about every nonprofit and charity in the United States.” Hundreds of alphabetically listed charities are searchable on United Way’s SmartGivers affiliate.

Be cautious if you get a phone call from someone asking you to donate to a charity, advises Aditi Jhaveri, a consumer education specialist for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Check sites such as the IRS list of tax-exempt organizations or your state Attorney General and the charity scams page on the FTC Consumer Information website.

The Better Business Bureau’s charity information section lets you check charity complaints and reviews, inquire about a charity and file complaints. Site sections include the BBB’s Wise Giving Guide, scam alerts, tips on disaster relief donations and other helpful resources.

And you can always search the organization name on Google or other search engines to see if it has been linked to any scams.

Safeguard yourself while online

A lot of scams come by email, Sandberg says. Be skeptical, even of the messages that seem harmless because they don’t ask for money. Those simple requests for coats, clothes and shoes could be designed to lull you into thinking the organization is safe. When they come back later asking for money, you’ll be more likely to give—and give away your personal and financial information, she warns.

“Trust your instincts,” cautions Lynette Owens, founder and global director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. “Ignore, report or delete any emails, text messages or ads that you believe are fraudulent.”

Be wary of downloading apps to your smartphone or mobile device, Owens warns. She says TrendMicro’s security intelligence blog, TrendLabs, reported the discovery of several false versions of popular apps such as Instagram and Angry Birds that are designed to steal your personal information or download malicious information onto your mobile device.

And be careful what you say online. Social media is a cyber criminal’s dream because social networks are built on trust and sharing, Owens says: “Place and date of birth is all identity thieves need to figure out a social security number.”

Whether scammers use old or new methods, their goal is the same—“to use your naivety or trust [to] ultimately steal something from you.”

Be wary of phone phonies

“Charities are allowed to call you” even if your number is listed on the Do Not Call Registry, Weisman says. However, “you can never be sure who’s on the other side” of that phone call, text, or email. Scammers can use a technique called “spoofing” to make your caller ID display a phone number from a legitimate, recognizable organization.

If you decide you’re interested in donating to the caller’s cause, don’t share any personal information or a credit card number at that point. Just say “thank you for the information” and hang up, Weisman advises. Then find the charity’s real phone number yourself and make the call to a phone number you know hasn’t been spoofed.

There’s another benefit to doing it that way, Weisman adds. “The telephone solicitor is going to be getting a certain commission” on your donation. While that is legitimate, he says when you eliminate the middle man and his cut, the charity will get more money.

Think before you act

Whenever anyone asks you to give money, that’s cause for suspicion, Sandberg says. Maybe they’re OK, but “it’s up to you to find out” by doing your homework before you open up your wallet, she says.

Educators aren’t any more vulnerable to scams than people in other professions, says Weisman, whose daughter is an inner city teacher. But their natural caring spirit can be used against them: "Teachers are people who go into the business of teaching because they care about people, because they want to help, and because they want to make a difference.” Be sure to balance your desire to help others with a bit of skepticism.

And remember, donating to charity doesn’t have to mean giving money. Many people give their time and labor by volunteering at food banks, homeless shelters, animal rescues, or other local charity and aid groups, says Sandberg.

“For example, I provide credit and money management workshops to an organization called Downtown Streets Team which helps homeless people transition into employment and apartments,” Sandberg explains. The organization’s motto is “ending homelessness through the dignity of work” and since it began in 2005, it has found homes and jobs for more than 1,000 people.

Look on local government websites to find similar opportunities in your area, she suggests: “Click under ‘volunteer opportunities.’ Chances are, you’re going to find a cause you care about and a way you can help, and you don’t have to spend a penny.”

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