The holiday season is a time for giving, but it is also a time to get ready to pay your taxes, and for those who are fortunate enough to have more than they need, it is time for some end-of-year charitable giving.
Even if you don't have a big surplus budget, you may want to balance out the holiday "gets" with some giving. The glut of holiday gifts, food and accessorized jollity make it unavoidable, bringing to mind the millions who struggle each day just to get enough food and clean water, shelter and/or warm clothing.
Whether you are moved to help refugees in war-torn areas, children crammed into underfunded schools or endangered animals, your beneficence will be for naught if a scam artist tricks you into making a donation to his or her personal treasure chest.
When it comes to giving, you want to be sure your gift gets where you want it to go -- where it can help. Scam artists who take advantage of that humanitarian spirit are an unfortunate part of our social jungle, predators who use the pain or most pressing needs of others for their personal gain.
On the charitable scam front, this holiday season will most likely be little different from previous years. Predators are targeting anyone and everyone moved to help others. Your empathy is their quick buck.
None of this should put you off giving to your favorite charity, or for that matter a new charity. The worst parts of our society should never be allowed to interfere with our better angels, but they should also never be discounted, lest they get the upper hand.
For the most part, if you are up to speed on the scams and pitfalls out there, you should be okay. The key is to cultivate a mindset of caution, as I explain in my book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves. Practicing caution can be as simple as not clicking on a link sent to you online, even if it looks exactly like an email that you've received in the past from a trusted organization.
The same goes for a phone call. The person on the other end of the line may sound legit, but the only way to be sure is to operate by this basic rule: Never trust, always verify. Never say yes to a request unless you have independently confirmed it is coming from a legitimate organization and you are in control of the interaction. Do not automatically assume because the subject line or name of the sender looks right, or the Caller ID looks official that you are dealing with the right charity or nonprofit. We are way beyond bad grammar, misspellings and unprofessional logos. The bad guys are really good at what they do.
When you are looking to do right by others, here are some ways to ensure that you are doing right by yourself and that your hard-earned funds are going to the right place.
1. Do Some Research
Charity Watch and Charity Navigator (both recommended by the Federal Trade Commission) provide lists of charities working on the behalf of victims of specific disasters as well as breakdowns of how your donations get spent. If you like the sound of a charity, check it out online. If there are any issues with the way they work, or if there are any scams related to those charities, you will see posts about it on the first page or two of your search results.
2. Always Initiate Contact for Your Gift
You never know who is on the other end of a phone call or what is on the destination site linked to in an email. The only way you can be sure is to contact the organization directly. It doesn't matter if the person who solicited you says they need you to make your gift with them because they have a quota -- after all, isn't giving about the recipient, not the solicitor? Nothing anyone says to you (other than your heart -- provided you use your head -- and the advice of your accountant) should influence the amount, method or timing of your donation. Call the charity to make a donation, or do a search and make sure you have the correct web address and that the page where you enter your donation amount and payment card information says "HTTPS."
3. Get -- Don't Give Out -- Information
There is no situation in which a charity needs your Social Security number or anything else from your Identity Portfolio. You should be asking them for information though, like how your money will be spent and whether they will be sending a statement so you can deduct the gift in your tax return.
4. Keep Records
You need to take notes because your gift may not require the charity to send you a statement. Use a credit card, which will create an automatic record of the transaction for you to use when preparing your taxes. If a donation is more than $250, you will need a letter from the charity that confirms their status as a tax-exempt entity and the amount of your contribution.
5. A Special Note
As the results of the presidential election surprised and dismayed millions of Americans, many have become concerned that a number of not-for-profit organizations will face severe funding cutbacks in this new political climate and have begun to increase their private support. This fact has not been lost on scammers. Donors should be even more sensitive to solicitations that are not what they seem to be during this time of transition and uncertainty.
At the end of the day, only you can make sure the gift you want to give goes where it is intended. (And if you think you've fallen victim to a scam, keep an eye on your credit for signs of identity theft. You can view two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.) Be generous, but always be careful.