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Check out charities before you donate

This is the time of year when we're likely to give without thinking about it.

You know what I mean.

You see a red kettle and you're already reaching in your pocket for change. Or someone calls from an organization that sounds familiar and right away you're offering a check or cash - which the caller has conveniently agreed to send someone over to pick up.

Nobody likes to sound like Scrooge, but I've got to tell you: There's a season of taking along with the season of giving, and we're in the middle of that season right now. There are a lot of folks out there who are trying to play on your charitable sentiments to take your money, so make sure you stop and think before you give.

I'm not suggesting you don't fork over your change to someone tending the Salvation Army kettle. But I am suggesting you take the time to check out people soliciting donations.

I'll talk about how you do that in a minute, but first let's discuss some of the general ways that scammers work during the holiday season.

One low-tech way is to call you on behalf of a known charity and to press you to make your donation right away through a credit card. The callers aren't after the donation, they want your credit card information so they can steal your financial identity and run up some big bills.

Another is to press for cash or a check that will be picked up right away at your home. They want to get the money before you have a chance to change your mind.

The high-tech ways are endless, but most of them are geared toward gathering financial information to be used in identity theft. In some cases, they'll send an e-mail purportedly from a reputable charity and direct you to what appears to be that charity's Web site. That's where you'll be asked for your credit card number.

Whether the pitch is high- or low-tech, the appropriate response is to not let yourself be pushed. Be wary of people who want to rush you into a donation. Never give out financial information over the phone or the Internet unless you've initiated the transaction.

Ask for printed information. And check out the charity before you give.

How do you do that?

In Washington state, charities have to register with the secretary of state's office. While being on the list is no guarantee they're on the up and up, absence from it shows the organization has already broken the law.

To check out a company, call the agency's charities hotline at 800-332-4483. Or you can check it out directly by visiting www.secstate.gov/charities. If you have the name of the charity or something close, you can see if it's registered. Many of the registered charities also list their street address, how they use the money, how much money they have in the bank, how much of what they collected during the past fiscal year was spent on their intended purpose and whether they use commercial fundraising companies.

The above Web site for the secretary of state has good advice and information about charities. Its 2006 report noted that charitable giving topped $500 million, with roughly 48 percent of the money - $241.5 million - actually going to charitable activities as opposed to the fundraiser or administrative expenses.

The state attorney general's office also have good information and advice on its Web site, www.atg.wa.gov/consumer/charity/html. It also has a toll-free line, 800-551-4636.

The agencies offer this advice about solicitations for charities:

Be wary of emotional appeals. Don't allow them to force you into impulsive decisions.

Ask if the solicitor is a volunteer or paid fundraiser and how much of a donation goes to the charity.

Be alert for names that sound like reputable charities, but aren't.

Don't make cash gifts. Checks are best for security and tax reasons. Ask for a receipt saying it's tax deductible. Make checks out to the charity's full name, not initials.
I hope I didn't scare you away from holiday giving. But make sure you take the time to know who you're giving to and how the money will be spent.

Mike Benbow: 425-339-3459; benbow@heraldnet.com Herald staff

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