People all over the world have already donated millions of dollars to scores of charities that have sprung up to support the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Those contributions will surely help many worthy causes. But crowds of generous donors can also attract financial scams that appear to be soliciting money for good causes.
So how do you ensure a charity is legitimate before you reach into your wallet?
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley suggests carefully vetting anyone asking for money. “Don’t curb your urge to be generous, just do your homework,” Coakley said. “Don’t not give, just give wisely.”
Smart giving begins by asking the organization questions. How can it prove money will go where it is intended? What will the charity do with excess contributions? How much of your donation will go toward the cause and how much covers administrative costs?
In some instances, a high percentage of every dollar donated is wrapped up in other expenses. For example, groups that sell T-shirts and other items will often pay overhead costs before victims see a dime.
It’s also critical to know the organization you’re helping, Coakley said.
If you aren’t familiar with a charity, check the attorney general’s registry of nonprofits, a listing of organizations that have at least started the process to become a nonprofit. The state will know how to track down those groups if complaints are filed against them later.
Don’t give money over the phone unless you know who you’re talking to, and always keep a record of donations, Coakley said. Make a copy of a check you mail off or save the receipt to later deduct from your income taxes. If you aren’t sure whether a donation is tax deductible, ask the charity.
Coakley warns people to be extra cautious when donating on the Internet, where most scams operate. Her office is monitoring many new domain names related to the explosions, 125 of which were registered within hours of the bombings.
To determine a site’s legitimacy, look for a phone number and call the charity first. Pay attention to the online address. “Https” at the beginning of an address indicates that a site secures information, and “http” doesn’t.
In some instances, scammers create counterfeit websites that appear to belong to legitimate charities, Coakley said. Fraudulent sites like that are often used to obtain credit card information from unsuspecting donors.
“Look out for anything that looks too homegrown — typing mistakes, grammar mistakes, or something that appears the site was thrown up in haste,” Coakley said.
Fake charities popped up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and most recently, the Newtown killings. Authorities have not yet discovered any fraudulent sites related to the Marathon bombings or received any complaints. Coakley attributes that in part to the presence of the One Fund, set up by Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Governor Deval Patrick shortly after the attacks to provide a verified charity supporting victims.
“One Fund was set up to give people who wanted to donate a chance to do so early and may have deterred some of the scamming websites,” she said. “We know a lot of contributions will go there and at least that one will be safe.”
Thus far, public donations have totaled more than $7 million to One Fund. The charity is expected to receive nonprofit status, which would make donations tax deductible.
Other smaller efforts have been made to support particular victims. One example is the work of the St. Mark’s Area Main Street group in Dorchester, which has raised more than $250,000 on behalf of the family of 8-year-old bombing victim Martin Richard. The boy’s father, Bill Richard, is a longtime member of the St. Mark’s board, and the group’s site says 100 percent of donations will go to the family.
One Fund donations can be mailed to One Fund Boston Inc., 800 Bolyston St. #990009, Boston, MA 02199. Checks payable to “Richard Family Fund” can be sent to St. Mark’s Area Main Street Inc., 1914 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, MA 02124.