BY JOEY FERNANDEZ Contributing columnist
Editor's note: Action Line is a weekly column from the Better Business Bureau answering consumers' questions and concerns about money and business issues.
Dear Action Line:
With the state of emergency that the East Coast is in, I want to do something to help. I never feel comfortable giving to charities because I'm afraid the money is not going to reach the intended target. I don't know who I can trust but I feel like I need to do so something to help my fellow Americans in need. Can you help me determine or pick which charity to donate to?
I can relate to your sentiments. This is a very difficult time in the eastern U.S. The entire nation is on high alert. People have battened down the hatches and done all they can to protect themselves and their personal property. Millions have been affected. But even once Hurricane Sandy moves out of the East Coast, thousands -- if not millions -- of people will start rebuilding their homes, businesses and communities.
Not only will that happen, but people from across the country want to help by donating money to charities. The Better Business Bureau serving Central California wants to remind you that although these types of disasters bring out the best in people, they can also bring out the worst.
While we do not recommend any business in particular, we can guide you toward making the best choice when it comes to donating to charity.
BBB offers the following six tips when choosing where to direct your donations:
* Rely on expert opinion when it comes to evaluating a charity.
When relying on third-party recommendations such as bloggers or other websites, be cautious, as they might not have fully researched the listed relief organizations. And in essence, they are but one person's opinion. Thanks to BBB Wise Giving, the public can go to bbb.org/charity to research charities and relief organizations to verify that they are accredited by the BBB and meet the 20 Standards for Charity Accountability. This is extremely important when giving your hard-earned money to a charity.
* Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations will assist relief victims.
Despite claims from an organization, charities have fund raising and administrative costs. Even with credit card donations there will involve, at a minimum, a processing fee unless waived under special circumstances. Never give to an organization that claims all of the proceeds go directly to the charity. Every organization will accrue some ancillary costs.
* Be cautious when giving online.
With technology today, a website can literally be built in an hour to mimic a legitimate charitable organization wanting to scam you out of your money. For this reason, be wary of spam messages and emails that claim to link to a relief organization. You should only give to an organization that has met the 20 Standards for Charity Accountability and one that you have initiated contact with.
* Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in impacted areas.
Unless the charity already has staff in the affected areas, it may be difficult to get new aid workers to quickly provide assistance. See if the charity's website clearly describes what they can do to address immediate needs.
* Find out if the charity provides direct aid or raises money for other groups.
Some charities raise money to pass along to relief organizations. If so, you may want to consider avoiding the middleman and give directly to charities that have a presence in the region. At a minimum, check out the ultimate recipients of these donations to ensure the organizations are equipped to effectively provide aid.
* 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 properly distribute such aid. Ask the charity about its transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those that are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.
Start With Trust. For more consumer tips and information, visit www.cencal.bbb.org or call 800-675-8118.
-- Joey Fernandez is assistant director of business services for the Better Business Bureau serving Central California. Send your consumer concerns, questions and problems to Action Line at the Better Business Bureau, 1601 H St., Suite 101, Bakersfield, CA 93301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.