BBB warns of possible scam charities amid California wildfires: How to donate safely

Los Angeles firefighters battle to contain flames to a burning home and prevent the fire's spread to adjoining properties in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

LOS ANGELES – Wildfires fueled by the gusty Santa Ana winds are raging in southern California, destroying homes and forcing thousands of people to evacuate.

As images of the destruction make their way across the nation, many people may want to donate to the recovery efforts.

  • The United Way has teamed up with the American Red Cross and Ventura County Sheriff's Office to start a Thomas Fire fund. You can donate by texting UWVC to 41444, make a donation online, or by calling 805-485-6288.
  • The Salvation Army Ventura Corps are also asking for donations of water and snacks to help people displaced by the fire. You can donate by calling 1-800-SAL-ARMY or visiting their website.
  • The American Red Cross is also looking for volunteers to come help in the relief efforts. On Wednesday, 15 Oregon volunteers headed south to aid those evacuated by the fires. They are accepting applications online.
  • The Humane Society of Ventura County and the Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation are both working to shelter pets and animals displaced by the fire.
  • The Catholic Charities of Los Angeles website is taking donations to help give families Christmas gifts as they are displaced from their homes through the holiday season.

But before you send your cash to California, the Better Business Bureau has a warning about possible scams:

Be cautious when giving online

Be cautious about online giving, especially in response to spam messages and emails that claim to link to a relief organization. If you want to give to a charity involved in relief efforts, go directly to the charity’s Web site.

Rely on expert opinion when it comes to evaluating a charity

Be cautious when relying on third-party recommendations such as bloggers or other Web sites, as they may not have fully researched the relief organizations they list. The public can go to to research charities and relief organizations and verify that they are accredited by the BBB and meet the 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.

Understand crowdfunding

Keep in mind that some crowdfunding sites do very little vetting of individuals who decide to post for assistance after a disaster, and it is often difficult for donors to verify the trustworthiness of crowdfunding requests for support. If you decide to contribute via crowdfunding, it is probably best to give to people who you personally know that have posted requests for assistance. For more tips on crowdfunding, check out this Wise Giving Wednesday post.

Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations will assist relief victims

Despite what an organization might claim, charities have fund raising and administrative costs. Even a credit card donation will involve, at a minimum, a processing fee. If a charity claims 100 percent of collected funds will be assisting hurricane victims, the truth is that the organization is still probably incurring fund raising and administrative expenses. It may use some of its other funds to pay these costs, but the expenses will still be incurred.

Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the impacted areas

Unless the charity already has staff in the affected areas, it may be difficult to bring in new aid workers to provide assistance quickly. See if the charity’s Web site clearly describes what the charity can do to address immediate needs.

Find out if the charity is providing direct aid or raising money for other groups

Some charities may be raising money to pass along to relief organizations. If so, you may want to consider “avoiding the middleman” and giving directly to those that have a presence in the region. Or, at a minimum, check out the ultimate recipients of these donations to see whether they are equipped to provide aid effectively.

Gifts of clothing, food or other in-kind donations

In-kind drives for food and clothing, while well-intentioned, may not necessarily be the quickest way to help those in need – unless the organization has the staff and infrastructure to distribute such aid properly. Ask the charity about its transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those who are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.

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