How to Donate After a Disaster and Avoid Scams

A man helps his neighbor down the street after rescuing her in his boat in their Houston neighborhood after flooding from Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. Scott Olson/Getty Images

When disaster hits, it's human nature to want to help. Many of us open up our wallets to assist those who've lost their homes or belongings after a catastrophe.

If you want to help but worry about how your donations will be used, here are tips for smart giving.

Donate to reputable disaster relief agencies. You can use the Better Business Bureau's tool to research charities and relief organizations to confirm that the groups are accredited by the agency and meet the group's standards of accountability.

Be cautious when donating online. Be wary of responding to unsolicited emails and social media posts that purport to link to a relief organization. According to Forbes, after Hurricane Katrina, the American Red Cross asked the FBI to investigate at least 15 fake websites looking for donations. After Hurricane Sandy, one scam charity raised $600,000 for storm victims, but that money went to its own pockets. If you want to give online, go directly to a charity's website.

See if a rescue group has an on-the-ground presence. As the BBB points out, unless an organization already has staff in an area, it can be difficult to bring in rescue workers quickly to offer assistance. Locally based groups can typically offer more immediate aid. Check out a group's website to find out where they're located.

Think about how you want your donation to be used. Some groups offer shelter, while others provide food and water or medical assistance. Some charities might be focused on long-term rebuilding and others are a middleman for other nonprofits. Decide what you'd like your funds to help accomplish. You can find links to charity websites at Charity Navigator so you can research what they plan to do with the donations they receive.

Be wary of certain promises and tactics. Some groups will say that 100 percent of donations will assist disaster relief, but that's unlikely. As the BBB points out, all charities have administrative costs. Even credit card donations have processing fees. Never donate to a group that asks for cash or wants you to wire money, advises the Federal Trade Commission. Avoid groups that have names that resemble better-known organizations or have high-pressure techniques, like asking you to donate immediately.

Consider offers of clothing, food or other in-kind donations. Sending cash is typically the most efficient way to get help to those who need it most. But occasionally charities are looking for specific items and are willing to haul it to those in need. Contact an established disaster relief organization, suggests the American Red Cross, to see what items are needed and to make sure the group is equipped to handle the donations. However, Charity Navigator suggests that instead of boxing up and sending your gently used clothing, you should hold a garage sale and send the proceeds to a group that can help more directly.