Give ... but give wisely

Most people don't pick charities - they wait to be asked for money.

That's a danger at this time of year. When appeals for donations from legitimate organizations pick up, so does activity among fraud artists hoping to cash in on your holiday spirit.

The average American household gave $1,075 to charity last year - roughly 2.1 percent of household income - according to Independent Sector, a firm that tracks charitable giving. Of that money, about 40 percent was given away in December.

Here are some giving tips from the Council of Better Business Bureaus:

*Watch out for similar names. Many are legitimate, like Children International and Children Incorporated. But scam artists try to make their fake come-ons look and sound like established charities.

*Be wary of solicitors that demand "on the spot donations." Charities should welcome your gift whenever you want to send it.

*Question vague appeals. Watch out for donation requests that identify a problem, but don't detail their own programs.

*Don't hesitate to ask the charity for written information on its programs and finances. Not all soliciting organizations are charities.

*Don't give cash; write a check out to the charity's full official name, not to an individual or third party that might be collecting the donation. And keep records.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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