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How to protect yourself against charity fraud during the holidays

What you should know before opening your hearts and wallets this holiday season
Charity Fraud: A guide to giving safely 03:13

The holidays are about giving. And while many shower loved ones with presents, millions of Americans also provide support for charitable causes.

In its annual report on philanthropy, Giving USA estimated Americans donated 4.2 percent more to charities in 2013 than the year before. That marked the fourth year in a row that charitable giving has increased.

Many charities represent noble and worthwhile causes, but not all deserve your help - some because they're poorly run; others because they're simply frauds.

"Because so much money is being given out during this time, by extension the scammers and the thieves know this is the time to exploit people the most," said Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator, a nonprofit that rates 8,000 U.S.-based charities operating around the world.

There are specific kinds of causes where charity fraud is more prevalent, according to Berger.

"The causes that we find scammers are drawn to the most are the ones that the American public really resonates most powerfully with. So examples are charities that are meant to support the families and people themselves who have risked their lives for our country: police, firefighters, veterans," said Berger. "And in another group are charities that are meant to help children - children with cancer, children with disabilities."

Charity Navigator rates organizations according to two main criteria: its finances (do donations actually get to where they need to go?) and governance (is there an independent board that sets the organizational direction and ensure ethical practices?) They also hope to add a third factor, measuring a charity's effectiveness in realizing its mission.

In addition to rating charitable organizations, Charity Navigator also offers tips on what it calls "intelligent giving."

"The first and most important tip is not all charities are created equal and a little research can go a long way to protect you from getting ripped off," said Berger.

In New York, the Attorney General's office targets fraud through the Charities Bureau. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said they regulate more than 60,000 nonprofit organizations in the state. He warns this is a dangerous time of the year.

"It is the holiday season. There are a lot of people who want to give money to a charity. We urge everyone - take a little bit of time - check out the legitimate charities," said Schneiderman.

There are several tools available to help with your research. The website GuideStar doesn't rate charities, but like Charity Navigator it provides information on charities' financials including Form 990, the IRS filing document for nonprofits. Another way to get free reviews and evaluations on national charities is through the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance.

A recent study by the Better Business Bureau found that when it came to evaluating a charity's credibility, Americans mainly looked at its finances, but that's not the whole picture.

"The danger of only looking at finance is, sure you can see if the majority of money is going to [a] program, but it could be a really bad program," said Berger.

In addition to doing your homework on specific charities, Berger also shared some other tips for giving safely:

Avoid giving to people in the street: While personal solicitations can tug at the heart strings, Berger warns "you can never be certain that it isn't someone that's falsely presenting themselves."

Beware of phone calls: Even as more organizations reach out over email and text message, Berger said it's getting those telephone calls that can really trap you.

"Unlike a text message or an email, you know you are having a personal interaction. And once you are on the phone with somebody and they pull you in, that personal connection is more likely to have success than if it just this impersonal kind of message," said Berger.

And as New York AG Schneiderman separately noted: "People should be wary of telemarketers. If you are interested in giving to a charity you should go online, check them out, give to them directly because the telemarketers can take an enormous piece out of that."

Everyone can be a target: "I think the thieves will go after anybody from anywhere where they can get those dollars," said Berger. "Everybody is exposed and has a risk of running into these people."

But being prudent doesn't have to mean being a grinch.

"Charitable giving starts from the heart and it always should, and your passion and what you care about should always be a part of it so we're not in anyway suggesting you take the heart away," said Berger. "All we're saying is add the head so you don't get heart-broken."

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