Beware before donating to hurricane charities; how to pick the right ones

CLEVELAND - Isaac has weakened to a tropical storm, but continues to produce heavy rains, flooding and isolated tornadoes. As many Americans look for ways to help those affected, they can become overwhelmed with the number of choices. The Better Business Bureau serving Greater Cleveland warns consumers to watch out for fraudulent charities trying to scam donations during times of need.

"Americans have proven themselves to be very generous in times of tragedy and natural disasters," said David Weiss, president & CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Greater Cleveland. "Donors need to make sure their donations are going to ethical organizations that use donations responsibly."

The BBB offers the following tips to help people decide where to direct donations in order to assist storm victims and their families:

-Be cautious when giving online. Watch out for spam messages and emails that claim to link to a relief organization. If you are seeking to give to a charity organization involved in relief efforts, go directly to the charity's website.

- Rely on expert opinion when it comes to evaluating a charity. Be careful when relying on third-party recommendations such as bloggers or other websites, as they might not have fully researched the listed relief organizations. The public can go to research charities and relief organizations and check if they meet the 20 standards for charity accountability.

- Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations will assist relief victims. Despite what an organization might claim, charities have fund raising and administrative costs. Even a credit card donation will involve, at a minimum, a processing fee. If a charity claims 100 percent of collected funds will be assisting victims, the truth is that the organization is still probably incurring fundraising and administrative expenses. They may use some of their other funds to pay this, but the expenses will still be incurred.

- Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the impacted areas. See if the charity's website clearly describes what they can do to address immediate needs. Watch out for charities that don't already have staff in the effected areas as they may not be able to provide assistance quickly.

- Find out if the charity is providing direct aid or raising money for other groups. Some charities may be raising money to pass along to relief organizations. If so, you may want to consider "avoiding the middleman" and giving directly to charities that have a presence in the region. Or at least check out the ultimate recipients of these donations to ensure the organizations are equipped to actually provide aid.

- Gifts of clothing, food or other in-kind donations. In-kind drives for food and clothing—while well-intentioned— may not necessarily be the quickest way to help those in need, unless the organization has the staff and infrastructure to be able to properly distribute such aid. Ask the charity about their transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those who are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.

For more consumer tips and charities you can trust, visit  http://www.bbb.org/charity

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