How to Give to Japan’s Victims

Skip Twitter, use your phone, and make sure you know where your money is going.

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The heartbreaking images from Japan, which has been devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami and now faces a nuclear threat, are moving many Americans to help in whatever way they can. Before opening up your wallet, consider these guidelines for giving:

Give to vetted organizations. The organization Charity Navigator has posted a list of charities, including Action Against Hunger and Doctors Without Borders, that are currently contributing to relief efforts. Charity Navigator, which rates charities for donors, recommends giving to groups with proven track records instead of start-ups and to donate directly through organizations’ websites. If you get solicited by a telemarketer, the organization suggests hanging up, because it’s impossible to verify the identity of the caller.

The social networking and philanthropy website Causes has also put together a useful list of groups providing direct aid, including Oxfam USA, Save the Children, and Catholic Relief Services.

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Find out where your money is going. Some groups collect funds that they then pass on to other charities, while other organizations are more hands-on. The Better Business Bureau suggests “avoiding the middleman” to make your money go further by giving directly to groups that are already on the ground helping victims in Japan. At the same time, BBB warns that anyone claiming that “100 percent of donations” go to relief victims is probably not being truthful, since all groups have administrative expenses.

Use your phone. Just as it did after the Haiti earthquake, the Red Cross makes it easy to give through its web site or text message. To donate $10 through your cell phone, text the word “redcross” to 90999. Or, visit redcross.org to donate with your credit card (the minimum donation is $10).

Be wary of “shop to give” offers. The whole concept of donating through the purchase of items is a fishy one, since companies often place relatively low ceilings on how big of a donation they’re prepared to make. In general, it’s better to make an outright donation if your goal is to help.

If you’re still tempted, Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator, suggests looking closely at the details of profit-sharing arrangements. She recommends avoiding purchases that offer vague promises, such as sending a “portion” of proceeds to an unnamed charity. If the company promises a certain percentage of the sale price to a specific organization, then you have a better idea of where you’re money is going. Even then, your money might not make much of a difference if it comes in after the company has reached its limit of how much it planned to donate. A good rule of thumb, she says, is to buy only products that you planned to purchase anyway, and not to be swayed by the promise of doing good. “Usually the dollar figures are pretty small," she adds.

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Watch out for scams. After big disasters, scam artists look for ways to take advantage of people’s goodwill. Don’t fall for one of their schemes. Delete unsolicited E-mails that arrive in your inbox, and never click on a hyperlink that appears in an E-mail from someone you do not know. In general, sticking with big-name institutions—or at least organizations you are already familiar with—is a good way to avoid falling victim. Charity Navigator points out that after Hurricane Katrina, over 4,000 scam sites popped up, many of which looked just like legitimate sites.

While social networking on sites like Twitter help bring people together in times of tragedy, they can also provide a false sense that you really know the people behind the Twitter handles (or Facebook IDs). Scam artists can pretend to be victims and appeal to people’s sympathy. Scam artists operate on social networking sites, too, and in fact the Better Business Bureau has issued specific warnings about Twitter scams in the past. They are currently dozens of Tweets about donating to victims; be sure you know where your money is going before sharing your personal information or bank account digits with anyone.

[See our photo gallery of the Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan.]

Skip the care package. While it might be tempting to put together a supply box yourself and send it to Japan, Charity Navigator says this is not a good idea, given the disruption of mail service and logistical challenge of getting packages into the hands of those who need assistance.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.