'Tis the season for giving to family and friends, and donating to charity.
But before you donate, make sure you're giving to an organization that will put your money to good use and that you're donating wisely and safely. Not all charities are what they seem. Fraudulent charities can employ some sneaky tactics to convince you to give. They may claim false affiliations with well-known organizations or send fake invoices to individuals who never actually pledged to donate money.
The next time you consider giving to a charity, check it out first. Follow these guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission and the Charities Review Council before making a donation:
- Get information. Research the organization at the Charities Review Council website (smartgivers.org) to confirm that it's legitimate. Look at the online giving guide to find more about the organization, its mission and programs to know what your donation supports. Don't just give to an organization because it has a heart-warming story on TV.
- Check with your state regulatory office. The National Association of State Charity Officials (nasconet.org) provides a list of state offices that regulate charitable organizations. Your state office can tell you whether the charity must be registered and how much of your donation goes to the charity versus fundraising and management expenses.
- Ask questions. Charities sometimes hire professional fundraisers to obtain donations and use part of the money received to pay the fundraiser's fees. Ask if a caller is a paid fundraiser, whom they work for, and how your donation will be allocated. If you're unsatisfied with the answer, don't donate.
- Verify where your money is going. If a charity claims that your donation will benefit a specific organization, call the organization independently to confirm.
- Beware of phony websites. Scammers often use Web addresses that are similar to official addresses of legit organizations to trick users.
- Protect confidential information. Look for "https" in the browser to make sure you're on a secure site. Never click on links in unsolicited e-mail appeals asking for confidential information such as passwords, credit card numbers, or financial account numbers. Also beware of attachments -- they may contain viruses that can harm your computer.
- Observe check donation safety. If you're donating through the mail and not online, make your check payable to the charity, not to the individual collecting the donation, recommends the Better Business Bureau. Never send cash.
- Be wary of pledges you don't remember making. When in doubt, check your records. If you don't remember pledging a donation and can't find documentation to support it, steer clear.
For help in finding a charity you can trust, visit Charity Navigator online.
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