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Watchdogs on Alert for Haiti Charity Fraud

As pleas for money to assist victims of the Haitian earthquake pour in across the internet, watchdogs are keeping an eye out for fraudsters looking to exploit Americans' desire to help.

Already, charitable experts tell CBS News that links on Google posing as Haitian charities are in fact links to malicious software sites. Other fake charities appear to have popped up on Craigslist just hours after the quake, according to the internet security experts at Websense, Inc..

Following the 2005 Indonesian tsunami, fake charitable requests appeared online. A Portland, Oregon, man was arrested in January 2005 who falsely claimed to be an employee for the charitable organization Mercy Corps.

The FBI issued a statement today warning donors to ignore spam emails asking for donations and encouraged skepticism if they are contacted by survivors asking for money. The FBI suggests donating to well-known organizations and avoiding giving out any personal or financial information. The FBI says it is already investigating a fraudulent charitable request related to Haiti.

An expert on charitable compliance and former Senate investigator, Dean Zerbe, suggests donors stick with established organizations. "The smart giver who wants to do some extra work should also look at the charities 990 tax form on Guidestar and focus on how much money is going for charitable purposes and how much going to salaries and fundraising," Zerbe said.

The Federal Trade Commission oversees charity fraud in the U.S. and has no jurisdiction overseas but says they are planning to issue a charitable fraud alert today.

In the age of viral messaging, unknown charities can transform from obscure organizations to magnets for online donations overnight helped by flurries of Twitter messages and Facebook postings.

A few of the most prominent recommended charities online include:

Text the word Haiti to 909-99 and $10.00 will be charged to your cell phone account. CBS News has confirmed this is a legitimate appeal and goes to the American Red Cross.

One way to check on the legitimacy of a charity is to go to The Foundation Center website and look up the charity's most recent IRS tax filing. Charities that have budgets lower than $25,000 can receive IRS approval for non-profit status but are not required to file annual tax reports.

An expert on consumer scams, Steve Weisman, also recommends donors visit the Charity Navigator website. Weisman says the site can help donors figure out, "how much goes to administrative and fund raising costs." The site also offers information on salaries of the charity's employees.