Many people watching the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey are looking for ways to help the victims dealing with historic flooding and destruction.

Relief efforts are under way on the ground, and charities are providing backup resources to first responders and the shelters taking in thousands of displaced residents. 

Unfortunately, there are those who would take advantage of a disaster’s chaos and the charitable giving it inspires. Sham charities and fundraising campaigns will pop up online, and even well-meaning charity drives can hinder the work of professional organizations and trained disaster relief organizers. 

"The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey prompts us to do what we can to help as soon as possible," said H. Art Taylor, president and CEO of Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, said in a release. "But donors need to be aware of some key cautions so that their generosity will get to those in need quickly." 

Here are a few tips to help you be smart, safe and effective with your charitable giving:

1. Verify legitimacy

Always verify the background and legitimacy of the charitable organization you’re considering donating to. The Better Business Bureau provides a database of their BBB Accredited Charities on give.org. The BBB verifies 20 separate standards for charity accountability, including things like an organization’s effectiveness, how much their board is compensated and if donors’ identifying information is kept private.  

Charity Navigator  and CharityWatch, founded by the American Institute of Philanthropy, are other resources to gauge the legitimacy of an organization asking for donations.

2. Send cash, not clothes

While many people want to help disaster victims in any way they can, a deluge of canned goods or winter coats can actually add more stress to charities unable to properly distribute or store such items. The BBB urges donators to be cautious and ask the charity about its transportation and distribution plans, and to be wary of organizations without disaster relief experience.

Cash donations allow charities to buy relief products local or regionally, which reduces shipping costs and allows relief organizers more flexibility than donated goods.

3. Be wary of crowdfunding

Crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe and Indiegogo have allowed people to leverage their social networks to fund immediate emergency expenses, but authorities urge caution with crowdfunded campaigns following a natural disaster. The sites can do little to verify the claims made in each campaign, and there’s no guarantee your donation will be used for the expenses stated.

"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," says the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. 

4. Avoid telemarketers

Charitynavigator.org warns people to be wary of fundraisers who pressure you to contribute over the phone. Never divulge your credit card information via the phone. Likewise, be leery of email solicitations.

5. Check back later

Charities often receive a deluge of attention and donations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or crisis. But it often takes months or years for victims to fully recover after the initial rescue and relief phase. If you can’t give now or feel overwhelmed by the amount of charity campaigns seeking donations, check back in a few weeks for a recovery effort to support. 

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