It's the holidays; you're in a giving mood; so you mail off a check to a good cause and bask in the joy of a deed well done.
But has your donation truly reached those in need?
To find out, do a little research, says Bennett Weiner, of the Philanthropic Advisory Service of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, in Arlington, Va.
* Get a copy of the charity's annual report for specifics on expenses, donations, and programs.
* Ask the charity for a copy of its IRS Form 990, the public document that explains its mission.
* Examine the group's audited financial statement, sometimes found within the annual report.
Especially important: be wary of unsolicited telephone requests, particularly from groups you may not know, Weiner says.
Some unscrupulous operators cull contributions based on natural disasters, such as hurricane Mitch.
Some legitimate groups helping in the wake of Mitch have been slow getting deliveries out of US warehouses and into Central America, where the relief is needed.
Some 40 states require charities to register, which doesn't necessarily mean a group meets national standards, but it does show the group is candid about its mission.
TIPS ON CHARITY SCAMS
* Names similar to well-known charities. can suggest an intent to misrepresent.
* Don't give out personal financial information over the phone or computer.
* Be wary of high-pressure requests and charities with vague missions.
* Check to see if a charity has a Web site. It will provide helpful information. CARE, for example, gets an increasing number of contributions (www.CARE.org).