Opt for safe and familiar organizations when donating to charity

Faced with the magnitude of the earthquake tragedy in Haiti, many people are reaching for their checkbooks or clicking on an Internet link to send a donation.

Sadly, one thing potential donors and charities alike need to be wary of is the potential of fraud. Technology has made it much easier for scammers to pull a fast one both on donors and charities.

Even the most established charities aren’t immune. Over Christmas, the Salvation Army in Charleston received a $25,000 check and used the funds to help needy families with gifts and supplies. It was later discovered that the check was fraudulent, written on an account that had already been closed. Donors have since helped the Salvation Army recoup the funds, but the fraud was a sad wake-up call to the fact that every charity is a potential victim.

Officials at national Catholic charities say their organizations use a variety of means to assure that donations collected are valid, and they encourage donors to send money only to organizations they trust.

Monica Yehly, director of development for the Pontifical Mission Society, said the key is for charities to work closely with financial institution to monitor donations. She said they haven’t had many incidents of fraud, but would be alerted quickly to suspicious activity because workers are in constant contact with the banks that handle their donations. Yehly said donors themselves should also monitor their own accounts.

Roger Conner, director of communications for Catholic Charities USA, said the agency has received many donations earmarked for Haiti since the earthquake. He noted that contributions for Haiti should be made directly to Catholic Relief Services because they handle overseas disasters. His agency is directing all Haiti money to CRS.

When a tragedy receives so much attention people automatically want to give quickly. That is why it’s important that donors stay vigilant, Conner said.

“It’s very important that you’re not the victim of a scam when you want to give,” he said. “It’s important to give your money to places you can trust. With both CRS and Catholic Charities, people know if the money is received, it’s going to be used in the right places. When it comes to giving, trust is huge.”

In the wake of disasters, Internet ads pop up soliciting donations to a variety of charities and funds. Conner reminds people not to just click the first link they find.

“Do not instantly trust a Web site or a Web address,” he said. “Go a little deeper and do some research. Remember that it’s very easy with the Internet and with today’s technology to quickly put up a new Web site that can look very official. Stick with names of charities you know well and don’t donate to something you don’t know anything about.”

Jim Cavanar, president of Cross International Catholic Outreach, said his organization receives both cash donations and goods including clothing, medicines and hospital equipment. Like most large charities, they will occasionally receive checks that bounce or a credit card donation that is refused, often through an innocent mistake by the donor. In those cases, he said, staff will try to contact the donor to remedy the situation.

Cavanar said Cross International distributes aid through Catholic churches and established Catholic ministries in 40 countries.

“We enter into long-term committed relationships with ministries,” he said. “We visit each of them twice a year, so we get to know them very well.”