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The Watchdog: How to avoid charity scams

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

Hey Watchdog! My heart goes out to flood victims. As a Texan, I want to help. That's what we do. But I don't know where to get the best bang for my charity buck. I want to donate. But how can I avoid getting scammed?

Glad you asked. For every inch of rain, there's a foot of scams coming. I saw a report that already more than 150 internet domain names were purchased with the name Harvey. The Watchdog is certain many of these will be up to no good.

What's the best way to find who to donate to?

A little bit of research. What's your interest? Who handles that specialty? Is the charity for real?

That's it? Sounds simple enough.

No, that's just the starting point. The key is the charity's history. Has it been around a long time?

Give me examples of some established Houston-area charities, please.

Sure. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. There's the Houston Food Bank and the Food Bank of Corpus Christi. Don't forget the pets at the Houston Humane Society. There are hundreds more.

What do I want to avoid?

Stories that play on your emotions, especially if you hear about them through emails or on social media. They may not be real. Criminals who use disasters to scam for money are cunning.

So you're saying go for an established charity, right?

Yes. Here's a tip I often use to check a charity's statistics. Does it pay a lot of employees? High salaries? Big overhead? I do a search on the web for the charity's name along with "Form 990." That's the annual IRS report a charity files. It's loaded with information that helps you decide if you want to support it. Not all Form 990s are available, but many are.

Are there websites that help you vet charities?

Top ones are GuideStar (guidestar.org/Home.aspx) and Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org). The Better Business Bureau has a site, give.org. CharityWatch (charitywatch.org/home) is another.

What does The Watchdog think of GoFundMe?

I love the concept — but it's too easy to set up fake campaigns. Be careful.

I noticed you didn't mention the Red Cross.

I haven't forgotten the NPR investigation last year that revealed that the Red Cross spent 25 percent of Haiti donations on internal expenses. But no doubt the Red Cross does extraordinary work. Thank you.

What if I want a more hands-on experience and want to see where my money goes?

Here's an idea. If you belong to a church, maybe your church can partner with a church in southeast Texas for the next year.

What other tips, Watchdog?

Don't donate based on emails. Always assume they're fake. Never click on links or attachments. Don't donate to someone who calls on the phone, no matter who they say they are. Same goes for door-to-door liars. And don't give out personal information like a Social Security number or driver's license. Charities don't need that.

Does it matter if a charity is IRS-approved?

Definitely. Donations to approved nonprofits are tax deductible. Remember to pay with a check, if you can, to save a record. Never wire money to a charity. That's a red flag.

As a Texan, I'm here to help, not deduct, if you know what I mean, Watchdog.

Oh, I do. This crisis is going to get solved with public-private partnerships and the Texas can-do spirit like never seen before. As we start the process, let's not waste even a dollar going to a criminal.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

The Watchdog Desk works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.

Contact The Watchdog

Email: watchdog@dallasnews.com

Call: 214-977-2952

Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265