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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 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.”

One example Weisman cites is the hugely successful Ice Bucket Challenge for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Participants in the Ice Bucket Challenge could choose to have a bucket of icy water poured on their heads or to donate $100 to the ALS Association. When celebrities took the challenge and the campaign went viral, it raised more than $220 million globally for the cause.

Unfortunately, scammers seized the opportunity to piggyback on that hugely successful charity campaign by sending fraudulent “phishing” emails that appeared to be from the ALS Association. When the addressee clicked on the attached “receipt.doc” to open it, they unknowingly released malware capable of collecting sensitive personal information from their computers, the ALS Association reports.

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

“I just got one recently for a police and firefighter’s fund for children in need,” says Erica J. Sandberg, a personal finance expert in San Francisco and columnist at It sounded genuine, but when she checked it out, she learned that the fake organization had nothing to do with the police department or a real charity.

Check before you write that check.

Several good resources can help you do your homework and verify a charity’s legitimacy before you donate. 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.” Search the 350-plus listed charities on United Way’s SmartGivers affiliate.

The Better Business Bureau’s 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, co-founder and 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 their 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. That’s legitimate, he notes, but 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 your wallet, she says. 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. For example, Sandberg says she’s doing Neighborhood Emergency Response Team training. “It’s free, and it’s a way to give back to the community,” she says, “and if we get into an earthquake, I can help.”

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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