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The Season of Giving: How to Vet Pop-Up, Disaster Relief Charities

After natural disasters, it's not uncommon to see pop-up charities appear, particularly around the holiday season.

As groups jingle change, requesting donations on city streets and from shoppers outside storefronts, it's important to know where your donation will go.

Not all charities are created equal.

Some may allocate more money to their employees or to advertising than to the cause. Some may support side projects that don't align with the donor's beliefs. Others are flat-out fraudulent.

After Superstorm Sandy, numerous pop-up charities appeared promising to aid the relief effort in hard-hit areas of New York and New Jersey. The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs issued warnings about charity scams and identified one fraudulent organization that had raised over $100,000.

Nearly two years after the storm made landfall, amid the ongoing struggle of reparations for homes and businesses, the state of New Jersey settled a lawsuit against the Hurricane Sandy Relief Foundation, and donated the rest of the funds to several legal and local 501(c)(3) groups.

"We are bringing closure to the many well-intentioned and generous donors who gave to this allegedly fraudulent charity and bringing genuine relief to low-income families whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Sandy," Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said in a press release last May.

Similar situations evolved after severe drought conditions in California resulted in a rampant wildfire season.

In May of 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) advised people to beware of these pop-up charities and potential scams.

"Unfortunately, criminals can exploit these tragedies for their own gain by sending fraudulent e-mails and creating phony websites designed to solicit contributions," an FBI press release said.

While there's no fool-proof way to vet a charity, these tips will help you find an organization that is true to its mission statement and aligns with your personal values:

1. Ask for Credentials When Solicited for Donations

Legitimate charities will be eager to share more about their organization. If unsure of an organization's legitimacy, ask for contact information so a future donation may be placed if independent research yields the right results.

2. Probe for More Details

Fraudulent organizations may make vague claims such as collecting "For the Troops." Ask how donations will be spent and what the collector's affiliations are.

3. Check the Better Business Bureau

The BBB has a list of charity reviews that help a donor decipher the legitimacy of an organization. It also allows a potential donor to search by the cause he or she wants to support to find an organization that fits the "Standards for Charity Accountability."

4. Don't be Afraid to Say No

A good charity should not bully people for donations. If too many questions linger, walk away.

5. Don't Blindly Trust a Big Name

Some well-known, popular and nationally publicized charities may not be all they appear to be. Research the big names to determine where most of their money goes.

6. Donate Year-Round

The holidays are a more popular time to donate to causes, especially food banks, but people and organizations rely on public support all year long. Don't forget about favored charities after the season; sign up for mailing lists for groups to be up-to-date on their needs.