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Beware of scams with disaster relief

Wrenching images can lead to charitable giving that’s driven too much by emotion.

Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

Wrenching images can lead to charitable giving that’s driven too much by emotion.

The images from the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan are heart-wrenching.

“Totally destroyed,” one survivor said of the city of Tacloban. In a Reuters dispatch, a woman talked about her 11 missing family members. “I can’t think right now,” she said. “I am overwhelmed.”

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Catastrophic suffering in an impoverished country may move you to donate clothes, food, or money. But before you give, make sure your generosity is helpful and will end up with an organization that will ensure your gifts are used well.

Con artists see opportunity every time disaster strikes. Last year, the Better Business Bureau was warning about scams from bogus contractors as the East Coast was recovering from Hurricane Sandy. The bureau called them “storm chasers.”

BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance offers tips to avoid mistakes in donating to relief efforts:

 Don’t donate based just on a charity’s name. Be careful of start-up charities that carry the name of the disaster. They may not have the experience to provide aid, or worse, may be using the name fraudulently.

Take the time to make sure the organization has experience in the area that is suffering, in this case the Philippines. Your money will be wasted if the charity — even an established one — can’t get the aid to victims.

“Relief efforts can be very complex, and if someone doesn’t have systems in place it can get in the way and not bring the value needed,” says Edward Johnson, chief executive of the BBB that serves metropolitan Washington.

 Be sure any items you are collecting are needed and can be delivered. Relief charities often prefer to purchase clothing, food, and other needed items near the location of the disaster to help speed delivery and avoid freight costs.

 Be careful about appeals coming via e-mail and social media. It’s worth repeating that you should be wary of such solicitations. Every time there’s great need, people’s emotions can overtake their caution. They see the images of victims and immediately want to be part of the solution. The con artists know this.

Also, beware of appeals or websites recommended by friends. I’ve often received e-mails from people who think they are doing a good deed by spreading the word. But they may be letting a scoundrel they haven’t checked out reach their network of friends and family.

 Look into whether the charity is well managed. At give.org, you can scrutinize its finances. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance has a list of organizations that meet all of its measures for accountability and have said they are accepting donations for victims of Typhoon Haiyan. You’ll find the list at www.bbb.org.

You can also find a roster of organizations at www.charitynavigator.org. Click on the link for “Hot Topics” for information about charities’ ratings and financial health.

Charity Navigator suggests that before you make a donation, you think about the assistance you want to support, such as emergency aid, medical help, or long-term relief.

“Due diligence is important,” Johnson said. “It is also one of the first things people tend to set aside when they hear the news of a calamity. It’s easy to become emotional, and for good reason when you see images of the devastation and loss of life.”

Give if you can, but with your head as well as your heart.

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