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Beware of false charities that spring up after disasters

As a criminal defense attorney, I sometimes encounter people who are accused of soliciting donations for fraudulent charities. This is a very serious offense that is routinely investigated by the FBI and state authorities. With Irma breathing down Florida's neck, now is an excellent time to review some tips on avoiding being taken in by false charities.

Here are six pieces of good advice for people who want to give to charity after Irma moves on:

1. Focus your donation on charities you already know and trust, or research the charity on a site such as GuideStar, which provides detailed information on nonprofit organizations.

2. Never respond to or click on a link in an unsolicited email -- the email may be fake even if it looks real. Always contact the charity directly. Instead, always contact the charity directly by looking up the phone number or website address from a trusted source.

3. Avoid clicking on charitable solicitations you see on social media, as these are not always legitimate. Again, contact the charity directly.

4. When donating via a website, ensure you don't fall for a copycat site. These are sometimes set up at an address based a common misspelling or other slight variation on the charity's website address. Keep in mind that most -- although not all -- legitimate nonprofits have website addresses that end in ".org" rather than ".com."

5. Don't donate cash. If possible, pay by credit card, as this gives you some protection against scams and false charges.

6. If you want your funds to go toward disaster relief, say so. You can do this in a letter or by writing it on the memo line of your check.

Following these tips isn't foolproof, but it should substantially reduce the chance that you will give your money to a scam.

Finally, if you or someone you care about should be accused of soliciting donations for a fraudulent charity or a similar offense, you owe it to yourself to consult with an experienced, effective attorney who can protect your rights as the issue is sorted out.

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