Online charitable giving for the holidays

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The holiday season is traditionally a time of generosity. Many charities and nonprofit organizations report an increase in donations of volunteer work, goods, and money during this time of year, as people focus on ways to help the less fortunate. But the holidays also bring out scammers who try to con donors out of cash with fake (but legitimate-looking) websites and email solicitations. If you’re planning to contribute to a charity this holiday season, here’s how to thwart fraudsters and make sure that your contribution goes where it can do the most good—so you can give to those in need without getting taken.

Research the charity: Before you give, learn all you can about the charity. Check its website for a physical address, phone number, and other contact information, along with names of principals and board members. Look for a clear mission statement and financial reports; by law, nonprofits must make their financial information publicly available. Also, check the site’s URL: Most nonprofits use .org, not .com, in their domain extension.

Delete email or social media solicitations from unknown senders: Be wary of online communication from unknown charities. Don’t follow links provided in the email. Some bad guys may even thank you for a previous donation that you supposedly made, before soliciting for a donation.

Resist the name game: Another common tactic that scammers use is to create a phony charity whose name is almost identical to a legitimate one—with “American” at the beginning of the legitimate name switched to “of America” at the end of the fake name, for example. Before donating to any organization, make sure that its name, logo, and URL check out exactly.

Don’t buy the hard sell: Reputable charities don’t try to strong-arm you into donating. Spam solicitations, harassing phone calls, requests for cash only, and offers to have a representative personally pick up your donation are all red flags.

Investigate local and event-specific charities: When natural disasters and other tragedies strike, tricksters often try to set up bogus websites and use other tactics to capitalize on the compassion of neighbors and fellow citizens. Many say that they’ll send your funds directly to a local cause—for example, to help families made homeless by a fire in your city. If a charity seems to have sprung up overnight, it probably has. The people behind it may not be crooks, but your best bet is to play it safe and donate via a local community center or an established nonprofit with established ties to the afflicted area.

Avoid prize/sweepstakes offers: Remember, charities are in the business of helping others, not lining the pockets of donors. If a charity tries to entice you into sharing personal or financial information in order to enter a sweepstakes or a contest, find a group that will use your contribution to support your cause more directly.

Use online resources to help you give wisely: Some of these advisory sites provide detailed information on hundreds of charities; others list only those that pass a rigorous vetting process. Here are three good places to start:

• Charity Navigator evaluates the financial health, accountability, transparency, and governance of thousands of charities and nonprofits nationally. Along with detailed facts and figures on individual charities, you’ll find top ten lists, search engines, advice, news, and many other resources to help you match your specific interests with the right organization.

• Network for Good brings together charities, donors, and corporations to facilitate and manage contributions. As a donor, you can use the site to find and research specific charities, and you can also set up a profile and use it to manage all your online contributions. You can donate directly to specific charities, schedule regular contributions, and even purchase gift cards good for donations to the recipient’s favorite charity. The site also includes links to online shopping tools, tax advice, and volunteer opportunities.

• is a portal site for online givers. You can search and get information on charities; keep track of your donations and maintain tax records; purchase gift cards, or wedding or event registry items; arrange memorials and fund raisers; and more.

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