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How Can I Tell if a Charity Is for Real?

Q. How can I determine if a charity is legitimate?

A. The easiest way is to check its name and reputation at the Wise Giving Alliance, operated by the Better Business Bureau. Other useful websites include Charity Navigator and GuideStar.

Here are some tips for fielding charity pitches:

  • Unless you previously donated to a particular organization and provided the organization with your e-mail address, assume that any e-mail seeking a donation for it is bogus. Don’t click on links promising to guide you to its website, photos or other “evidence” of need for your money—these links are a common way for hackers to infect your computer with a virus. To see a charity’s website, type its address yourself.

  • If you want to donate to a charity that phones you, always request that it first send you printed materials. Then authenticate the address and phone number through directory assistance or an Internet search. Mailed material is no guarantee of legitimacy, but organizations that won’t provide it may well be fake.

  • Never provide a credit card or bank account number by phone unless you initiate the call. Mailed personal checks are safest.

  • Beware of sound-alike names. Many bogus charities mimic the names of legitimate organizations.

  • Old-fashioned mailings are least likely to be scams, in view of the cost of postage. But be suspicious of mail from groups to which you haven’t previously donated. The sender may have purchased a mailing list with your name and address, but so can scammers. If a mailing seems genuine, authenticate the organization at the websites noted above before donating.

  • In general, good charities spend less than 35 percent of donations on fundraising and administrative costs.

Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues. Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues. Check out the Ask Sid archive. If you don’t find your answer there, send a query.