In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there's no shortage of charities out there vying for your donation dollars. While most of these organizations are well-intentioned, some are nothing more than fraudulent scams.
The U.S. Department of Justice warns consumers to be wary of unsolicited emails urging you to disclose personal or financial information online -- such as credit card numbers -- many of these solicitors are not connected to real charities. Also, be careful of telemarketers peddling sweepstakes or magazine-subscription schemes falsely promising that a portion of any money you give will go toward disaster relief.
Beyond those precautions, sorting the good organizations from the bad can be tricky, however. Many legitimate charities, including local police and firefighter service organizations, solicit donations over the telephone. Other charities hire third-party fundraisers to make calls and raise money for them. Here's what you can do to make sure your donation ends up where you intend it to:
Go With What You Know
One way to protect yourself and your contributions is to give to a charity you know or one you've given to before. Be on the lookout, though, for charities with misleading names that sound similar to well-respected organizations. The National Cancer Society, instead of the American Cancer Society, for example.
You might come across some worthy new charities with names referring to the tragedy of September 11th that you may not recognize. For a list of credible organizations, visit The American Liberty Partnership's Web site or the government-run site First Gov.
If you are solicited over the phone or in person by a charity you don't recognize, ask the representative to show you or mail you written information stating the charity's name, address, telephone number and proof that your donation is tax deductible. Then, call the charity and ask about its mission and how your contribution will be distributed.
Give Directly to the Charity
As mentioned above, some charities pay third-party fundraisers to solicit donations for them. Problem is, when you make a donation through a paid solicitor, they keep a portion of the money as payment for their services, so less goes to the people you're trying to help. Instead, make your donations directly to the charity. It may take more work to look up the organization, but you will have the assurance of knowing your money is being used to its maximum potential.
Never Give Cash
Of course, it's never smart to send cash through the mail. Whether you're mailing a donation, making a contribution in person or online, it's much safer to pay by check or credit card. If you plan on claiming your contribution as a write-off on your tax return, be sure to write the official name of the charity on your check and, if possible, get a receipt from the charity stating the amount of your donation. (For donations of $250 or more, written proof from the organization is required to claim a tax deduction.)
Speaking of safety, never give out sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers or passwords if you're solicited by e-mail. No honest charity needs this information to accept your donation.
Check Their Records
For more information on a charity's fundraising practices, finances and programs, take a look at the charity reports at the BBB Wise Giving Alliance's Website (an alliance formed by the National Charities Information Bureau and Council of Better Business Bureaus -- Philanthropic Advisory Service). The American Institute of Philanthropy, provides a list of top-rated charities, based on the amount of the organization's donations that go directly toward programs and their willingness to share information about their finances with the public.
Blow the Whistle on the Bad Guys
Report any fraudulent schemes exploiting the September 11th attacks to the Federal Trade Commission. By taking time to seek out legitimate charities and avoid the bogus ones, you can be sure your goodwill will do some good for the people you intend to help.