The holiday season is a time when concept of “giving” seems to come up a lot.
Hey, I’m all for it, too. Every single one of us, without exception, has something we could use to help someone else in our community, our country, or our world (“We are all connected,” after all). If “giving” was my main topic today, I would probably mention that there are people in need all year round, not just during November and December, but since it’s not, I won’t.
Instead, I’m going to talk about charity scams.
You see, two forces collide during the holiday season:
- The fact that a lot of people are thinking about “giving” more than usual
- The fact that there are people in the world who will do literally anything to line their own pockets.
It’s sort of a perfect storm.
However, there are some incredibly easy steps you can take to make sure you’re donating dollars to people who are in actual need, instead of donating to some crook’s wallet.
First, you could just decide ahead of time which charity or charities you’re going to support, and contact them yourself. If other organizations ask for donations, simply explain that you’ve already given what you had budgeted for the year. Legitimate charities will understand. Anybody who won’t accept this explanation is not to be trusted.
Secondly, consider donating something other than money. Food banks (like this one) can almost always use someone to help out at their distribution centers for a few hours, and there’s always the classic “helping out at the Soup Kitchen” scenario. Call or email organizations in your area and find out what sort of in-kind donations they’re looking for.
These two methods of giving are pretty safe. Scammers are looking for the easy money—they’re not going to set up an entire working food bank in hopes of skimming a few hundred dollars. However, there always seem to be a lot of opportunities that spring up on the spur of the moment this time of year.
First off, be cautious of charities that contact you via email. Most legitimate charities aren’t going to seek new donors this way. However, if you’ve given to an organization before, they might use email, since it saves them money on postage. Still, never respond directly to an email soliciting donations—use the organization’s official website or phone number, which you should use a source other than the email message (phonebook, Internet search, etc.) to find.
Always ask what percentage of your donation goes to help whoever the charity is supposed to help. If they’re on the up-and-up, they won’t mind the question. An angry or otherwise negative answer is a warning sign.
Donating by check is recommended over cash, as it gives you a way to track your donation for tax deduction purposes. However, never make the check out to a person—always write it to the organization.
I would also suggest going one extra step and paying by cashier’s check, to keep your checking account number out of general circulation, but if it’s an organization you trust, you can make that call yourself.
Watch out for fake charities using names that sound similar to real ones. Sometimes the difference between “foundation” and “center” can mean the difference between your money being used for the greater good, or just ending up in some dirtbag’s pocket.
Check out any charity with the Better Business Bureau before you donate, and I would also suggest doing a general Internet search. Sometimes you’ll find “Scrooge Lists” that call out charities who only pass on a tiny portion of their proceeds to the people they’re supposed to be helping. Be especially wary of any organization that claims to be raising money for disabled or retired police officers or firefighters or their families. A lot of these so-called charities are scams, plain and simple. What would you call a charity that keeps over 98% of its proceeds?
Finally, as a general rule, never respond to an unsolicited charity request without doing some homework first, no matter who the person contacting you claims to be. Know who you’re donating to before you send a single dime.
Once you’ve verified that you’re dealing with a legitimate charity, however, have at it—give as generously as your conscience dictates.