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Holiday Hoaxes

In the season of giving, charity cons do plenty of taking

En español | During this season of giving, you may notice an increase in phone calls, e-mails or letters seeking charitable donations. Contributions to the country's 400 biggest charities are down 11 percent this year, the largest decline in at least two decades, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. So fundraisers may be making special efforts.

But realize that this is also the season of taking: Although charity scams occur year-round, they are most common during the holiday season.

Scammers often use sound-alike names of well-known and respected charities. Or they invent ones purporting to help with four "hot-button" causes that target older donors in particular: police and firefighters, sick or needy children, victims of recent natural disasters, and veterans.

To add a feeling of authenticity, scammers who telephone may use "spoofing" technology that makes your caller ID screen display the name of a legit charity. And they also purchase e-mail and home mailing lists to send convincing but phony pitches for donations.

Unless you previously donated to a particular organization and provided your e-mail address, assume that all unsolicited e-mail requests for donations are scams. And don't click on an attachment or link, which can unleash a computer virus.

Mailings that arrive at your home the old-fashioned way tend to be the most credible, but again, be suspicious of those from groups to which you've never previously donated.

Your defense: Before donating, take time to authenticate charities by checking names and reputations at the Wise Giving Alliance (operated by the Better Business Bureau), Charity Navigator or GuideStar. You can also contact the state agency that regulates charities where you live.

If you get a phone solicitation and are interested in donating, request that brochures and other paperwork be mailed to you. If the caller doesn't have your address, don't provide it — it could be useful if it's a scammer on the line. Instead, obtain the organization's phone number yourself, then call and ask if a phone campaign is under way. If the answer's yes, it's OK to give your address there for mailing of brochures and the like.

Printed material is no guarantee of legitimacy, but organizations that won't provide it are typically bogus. Once you get the paperwork, confirm that the contact information and place to send your money matches what you've found on your own.

Once you've authenticated charities worthy of your money — ideally those that spend 25 percent or less of donations on fundraising and administrative costs — mailed personal checks are your safest form of payment. Never provide a credit card number to telemarketers (unless you initiate the phone call) and beware of any group that offers to send a courier to pick up cash or personal check at your home.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.