Want to send aid to disaster victims? Here's how to avoid charity scams

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The relief efforts that follow natural disasters like the ones currently unfolding along the Gulf Coast, Florida and elsewhere often showcase the best about Americans’ willingness to help their neighbors.

Unfortunately, the events sometimes bring out the worst — from those looking to make a quick buck through fraudulent charity scams.

The Department of Justice and the National Center for Disaster Fraud wants the public to understand the difference between legitimate charitable solicitations and those with bad intentions.

Consumers, they warn, should follow these general guidelines before making a donation of any kind:

—Ignore unsolicited emails. Do not respond to incoming spam emails, including clicking links contained within those messages, because they may contain computer viruses.

—Always be skeptical. Be wary of individuals representing themselves as members of charitable organizations or officials asking for donations via email or social networking sites.

—Be wary of similar, but not identical, charity names. Malicious organizations hope to mislead victims by using copycat names that are similar to but not exactly the same as a reputable charity.

—Do your research. Rather than follow a purported link to a website, verify the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations by utilizing various internet-based resources that may assist in confirming the group’s existence and its nonprofit status.

—Don’t open email attachments and photos. Be cautious of emails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files because the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders.

—Go directly to the source. To ensure contributions are received and used for intended purposes, make contributions directly to known organizations rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf.

—Under pressure. Do not be pressured into making contributions; reputable charities do not use such tactics.

—Protect you personal info. Be aware of whom you are dealing with when providing your personal and financial information. Providing such information may compromise your identity and make you vulnerable to identity theft.

—Avoid cash donations. Instead, try to pay by credit card or write a check directly to the charity. Do not make checks payable to individuals.

—Do not wire money. Legitimate charities do not normally solicit donations via money transfer services. Most legitimate charities’ websites end in .org rather than .com.

According to a statement, solicitations can “originate from social media, emails, websites, door-to-door collections, fliers, mailings, telephone calls, and other similar methods.”

Tips should be reported to the National Center for Disaster Fraud at (866) 720-5721. The line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Emails can be sent to disasterleo.gov. Information also can be faxed to (225) 334-4707.

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