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What You Need to Know to Donate Safely Online

   May 17, 2012

Donating online is a quick and convenient way to give to charity, but it also comes with drawbacks that donors need to be aware of. To help you donate online both effectively and safely, CharityWatch provides the following pointers:

1.)  Know your charity. Online or offline, never give to a charity that you know nothing about. Look for a mission statement, a clear description of program accomplishments, and a list of the board of directors. Do not assume a web address with a ".org" rather than a ".com" ending is a non-profit organization. Anyone can purchase a ".org" web address. To determine if a group has tax-exempt status, go to the Internal Revenue Service's website. CharityWatch's website also has links to other government regulators, databases of charity financial information, and other resources for charitable giving.

2.)  Obtain contact information. Make sure that you have the option to contact the charity online (through a working email address) and offline (through a phone number and a mailing address). It may be necessary to contact the charity offline if the charity's website is not functioning properly. Insist upon seeing a physical address to avoid scammers, who may set up a flashy website, raise a lot of money and disappear into the anonymity of cyberspace. Also, it is better to support groups with a physical address in the United States. Foreign groups that solicit in the U.S. are subject to our laws and regulations, but it is very difficult for a U.S. regulator to enforce a court injunction against a group operating outside of the country.

3.)  Look for date of information. Some charities do not change the information on their websites for months or even years. Find out when the information on a web page was last updated. Do not base giving decisions on outdated information that may no longer be accurate. Without verification of the date of the web page, you run the risk of supporting an organization that has changed its purpose or programs or is no longer in existence.

4.)  Give safely. Before sharing any credit card information online, make sure the site uses encryption technology to protect you. Check the address bar on the page requiring sensitive information to be posted. The URL should begin with "https." The "s" stands for "secure" and indicates that sensitive information will be encrypted and transmitted securely. If a charity keeps donors' personal information on an online network, find out if it utilizes firewalls or other technology to protect it from hackers. Also, make sure whatever technology a charity uses to protect your information from theft is up-to-date, since hackers may know how to defeat older security software.

5.)  Give directly. Why hand over a chunk of your contribution to a third party website when you can give directly through a charity's own site? If the charity that you want to support does not offer online giving, you may be able to give through JustGiving or Network for Good. Be aware that these third party websites may charge you a transaction fee, and charge the charity additional fees. Stay away from sites that seek to earn interest on your donation by delaying its transmission to the charity. One way these sites can hold your contribution is by claiming that they have to receive a fixed amount, such as $100, before they can send the money. If the site allows you to give to hundreds of thousands of charities, your $25 donation may sit in its bank account for awhile.

6.)  Protect your privacy. Look for a privacy policy and read it carefully. If you don't, you may learn too late that the privacy policy does not really safeguard your privacy. Before disclosing personal information, especially your credit card number, find out how the site plans to use your information and if it plans to sell it or exchange it. It is not adequate protection for the charity to agree to not sell your information if its vendor operating the site does not also agree to respect your privacy. Make sure that the charity gives you an "opt in" or at least an "opt out" option. An "opt in" option puts the burden on the charity to obtain your permission before using your personal information for other purposes. An "opt out" puts the burden on you to notify the charity if you don't want your information used for other purposes.

If you are concerned about charities being able to track your online activity, find out if they are placing "cookies" on your hard drive. Cookies collect and send bits of information from your browser back to the site of origin. The information can reveal your identity and browsing history to the charity.

7.)  Keep paper records. Print a copy of your final confirmation screen or an email confirmation of your donation. If you do not receive a confirmation notice, immediately notify the charity to see if it received your contribution. It is a good idea to hold on to a hard copy receipt for when you prepare to file your taxes.

8.)  Don't respond to spam solicitations. Spam is the junk mail of the online world. It is worse because it costs nearly nothing to send, and it can be very difficult to identify its origin. Spam solicitations may contain links to websites of scammers that look like those of legitimate charities. Do not forward to friends chain email solicitations. These chain letters may contain old or unreliable information. Also do not believe an email that promises a donation will be made to a charity every time it is passed on. Be wary of email from unfamiliar sources that asks you to reply if you do not want to receive their email. They may be trying to see if your email address is active so they can sell it to others and flood you with even more spam.

9.)  Don't be intimidated by online giving. Online giving has the potential for enormous good by saving billions of dollars in fundraising costs and allowing charities to more efficiently communicate with donors. If your favorite charities take adequate precautions, giving to them online should be no more risky than handing a waiter in a restaurant your credit card. By following these tips you can minimize the chance of potential problems and have a safe and secure online giving experience.