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How to Avoid Superstorm Sandy Scams

Kimberly Palmer

As the East Coast recovers from the historic storm Sandy, charities are busy helping victims and soliciting donations. Unfortunately, a slew of scams often follow major disasters, as well. These six guidelines are for those looking to help financially--without becoming a victim themselves.

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Give to familiar organizations. Established nonprofits, such as the American Red Cross, are already well-positioned to start assisting storm victims. In fact, the organization provided shelter for 9,000 people on Tuesday night in 13 different states, and 11,000 people the night before. Charity Navigator, which rates charities, recommends giving to organizations that already have a lot of experience dealing with disasters, so you can trust they have the know-how to put your money to good use. After Hurricane Katrina, dozens of websites claiming to collect money for charities sprang up, but many of them were scams.

Just say "no" to phone requests. Not only is it hard to verify just who is on the other end of the telephone when someone calls to solicit money, it's also likely that a big chunk of any donation will go to that middleman instead of the charity itself. Charity Navigator says that if you get solicited by an organization you want to support, put the phone down and send money directly to the charity instead (via mail or its website).

Delete email solicitations immediately. Charity Navigator also warns that email requests for funding--especially those that come from alleged victims--are rarely legitimate. If they come with a link or an attachment, they might even lead to a virus. The organization recommends deleting any email solicitations right away. Twitter and Facebook scam solicitations are also common; avoid clicking on any hyperlinks, especially from sources you don't recognize.

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Specify where your money should go. While charities generally discourage donors from specifying how donations should be spent, Charity Navigator says it's perfectly okay to do so. You can say your money should go to storm victims, for example, by adding a note to the bottom of a check. Charity Navigator's rating tool also shows how much charities spend on overhead costs versus program costs, so you can make sure to give to an organization with relatively low overhead expenses.

Send money only. It might sound impersonal, but money is usually what charities need most, and it's also the most easily transferable. Charities can then quickly use those funds to purchase any necessary supplies onsite. Charity Navigator also points out that organizations often have relationships with companies that provide bottled water or new clothes at a discount.

Beware of rebuilding scams, too. Charities aren't the only source of fraud; the Better Business Bureau warns that scams can appear in the form of door-to-door offers of contracting work. If someone knocks on your door and suggests that your home is not safe, for example, the bureau warns that instead of hiring them, you should turn to an engineer or local building official for an evaluation. When working with contractors, it recommends paying no more than one-third of the cost upfront. It also recommends carefully saving any receipts for insurance filings.

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With these strategies in mind, do-gooders can give generously, knowing that their money is going to the real victims.

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