California Attorney General Kamala Harris has issued some tips and warnings to help consumers make sure their holiday-season donations go to worthy causes and not to swindlers.
The most important safeguard, Harris said in an advisory issued this week, is to do some research to make sure that a charity to which you are considering donating is legitimate and trustworthy.
Don't assume that recommendations on social media such as Facebook and blogs are legitimate, Harris advises.
Instead, one can consult online reports compiled by several nonprofit groups dedicated to documenting charity accountability.
These groups include the Wise Giving Alliance at www.give.org, the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Foundation at www.bbb.org or the American Institute of Philanthropy at www.charitywatch.org.
Harris's office has also compiled a Guide to Charitable Giving, available online.
Harris advises that charitable contributions should be made directly on a charity's website when possible. If you donate by means of a check, write the full name of the charity rather than initials or an abbreviation. Do not give your credit card number to a telephone solicitor or in response to any unsolicited phone call you receive.
If you receive an e-mail or text message asking for a donation to a charity, contact the charity directly to make sure the request is legitimate.
If a solicitor contacts you on behalf of a charity, ask whether he or she works for a commercial fundraiser, and whether the commercial fundraising company is registered with the state Attorney General's Registry of Charitable Trusts. It is illegal for unregistered commercial fundraisers to solicit donors in California.
You can also ask what percentage of donations goes directly to the charity and how much is spent on fundraising and administrative expenses. You may prefer to avoid fundraising commissions by contacting the charity directly to make a secure donation. If a solicitor tells you a donation is for your local police, firefighter or other public safety agency, check directly with the law enforcement agency to avoid a potential scam, Harris advises.
Another tip is to be wary of car donation solicitations. Car donations often result in minimal returns to charities because of the high cost of advertising and other expenses associated with marketing the vehicles for re-sale, Harris said.
If you do decide to donate a car, ask the car donation fundraiser or charity to inform you of every donation designated to you and to provide records of the gift. Call the charity that was supposed to benefit to make sure it received the donation.
In a separate announcement issued on Tuesday, Harris noted that lawyers in her office sued two Southern California car-donation charities for allegedly misrepresenting their charitable programs and improperly profiting from supposedly charitable activities.
One lawsuit alleged that Los Angeles-based People's Choice Charities spent 97% of its donation proceeds on staff, towing, car repair and advertising. A second lawsuit alleged that Ventura-based Cars 4 Causes spent 87% of donations on such expenses. Both organizations were also accused of misreporting the amount given to charities.